After the disappointing outing DR3 was, DR4 opens to an encouraging back to basics approach. We’re back in a prison (albeit a different one – a city walled off) and Frankenstein is back to a brutal race. We get a quick recap with shots from the Statham film, to set the stage.Death Race still exists, but has been made illegal and gone underground, broadcast on the dark web from the walled off prison city (for a prison city though, they seem to be pretty well off with plenty of gas, bullets and booze. It’s not the wasteland Escape From New York was).
I’m not sure what Danny Glover is doing slumming in this film, but Danny Trejo makes a welcome appearance as Goldberg, now a bookie in Mexico and our real link to the outside world. He funnels supplies into the prison and takes bets on the race. We really get to see the race through his eyes. Frankenstein looks more terrifying than ever. The entire affair has more of a Mad Max feel to it, possibly stemming from the success of Fury road (released a year prior), and the opening treats us to gore at horror movie levels. Chainsaws, beheadings, this new Frankenstein is out of control, to the extent that the government is ready to move in and take over. Our hero this time around is Conner, a ringer snuck in to take out Frank in the race. He’s also about as charismatic s a block of wood, with a somewhat bored expression perpetually plastered on his face.
Of course it’s a new director so it’s a new vision for the series. The more stylized violence is a departure from the series. The fights are far more martial arts based, not the brutal street brawling that Statham was directed to do in Death Race. Also a departure is that Frankenstein is brought in as the straight up villain. Finally, the running time is a big departure, clocking in at nearly two hours. I’m not sold on the longer run time, I tend to think these things should stick to 90 minuets. It dosen’t quite pass the watch test, but there’s enough blood and antics to keep me amused.
It’s interesting to look at the cars. They’re evolving; not just guns, but fins and more spikes – you can see how they are growing into the cars we will see in DR2000. It’s ramshackle, something you can even see it in the tombstone on the back of Connor’s car. It feels welded and patched together, not the solid block of steel we’re used to. Still, it lends us a brilliant sequence where they are building the car and getting things ready. It’s good stuff, bonding the characters without lengthy exposition. And it makes me absolutely fall in love with the sassy, punky navigator for this movie. She still gorgeous, but it’s different kind of pretty. Not the glamorous street girls we’ve gotten used to in the past. Interestingly enough, she’s not the love interest for Connor, she’s really just there to help him with the car.
Of course, before you get a car, you have to fight. The gladiatorial bits are even more prevalent here, with both a dirt bike challenge and a hand to hand one, each streamed in all their bloody glory.
They get out of the cars a lot. Even though the race is really only the last half hour of the film, it seems like they are constantly finding reasons to get out of the cars and shoot at each other.
It’s not a bad film, certainly a step up from three and the twist at the end was actually well done. It’s worth a look, but be careful who you watch it with. There’s so much nudity in this thing that there’s characters who spend more time with their clothes off than on.
Death Race 2 ended with the creation of Frankenstein. DR3 opens with Frankenstein having won his fourth race. One more and he goes free. There’s just one small problem. The race has changed hands and the new owner isn’t as keen on keeping that bargain.
Between the films, it appears the pit crew never knew that Frankenstein was actually Lucas – their fallen comrade. His identity is revealed in the opening minuets of this entry though, along with the fact that he’s been getting some reconstructive surgery to fix his face (so Luke Goss doesn’t have to wear makeup or a mask for this whole film)
All of this feels very episodic. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was filmed back to back with DR2 because of how easily the characters slip back into their relationships. I suppose we can chalk that up to this film being made by Roel Reiné, the director of the previous film. We’re still following his vision, which is pretty close to what Anderson wanted when he made Death Race. The continuity makes this comfort food. Still, there’s some new faces with Dougray Scott taking over for Laurie Cohan as the villain. After he wrests control of Ving Rhames’ company and acquires the Death Race, he takes a very hands on approach to administration, chewing the scenery every chance he gets.
The Death Race has a new twist. The navigators have to fight for their positions, echoing the Death match of the previous film. It’s an interesting twist to let us know that all bets are off and the rules don’t matter anymore. The team is shipped off to Africa to race against new prisoners in a desert track. Its a different kind of race, that takes us through a village. The residents and the warlords are none to happy to see them and It gives us a glimpse of what the race will eventually becoming Death Race 2000.
It also presents us with a problem. At this point in the sequels, you have to do things that are new and innovative, things we’ve never seen before. This is just a step down from “Death Race in space!”. The problem is that we’re still in prequel mode, with this taking place before the Statham Death Race or the Corman DR2000. Innovation feels out of place. The scriptwriters have just about given up too, simply content to drop Rob Zombie levels of f-bombs instead of crafting actual dialogue and cramming as much sex as they can into the halftime intermission. Moreover the bigger wrecks and explosions come at the cost of the racing action. The desert track not only completely changes the color palette, but it also slows things down.
The ending feels very contrived. It’s an attempt to get things in line with the continuity established in the Statham Death Race while attempting to give us a satisfying conclusion with this crew. It’s certainly not what I expected, with a voice over recapping and explaining how everything fits together (kind of like the end of Oceans 11 or a Sherlock Holmes story) but it doesn’t drag the film down too much.
I have to give this film a bit of a break, with each installment the budget has been slashed (I don’t get how that works anyhow. Seems like you should get more money for a sequel, not less) and the move overseas was likely budgetary rather than aesthetic. Still, it’s one of the weakest films in this run, and that watered down feeling from DR2 is even more keenly felt here. This one is a safe skip, and I would have bet it was the end of the road for this series. In fact, it was, but only for a little while.
Death Race 2, the sequel to Death Race, is actually the prequel to Death Race which is the prequel to Death Race 2000. …Okay. I think I have that straight.
Opening this thing on Danny Trejo is a good sign. And is that Sean Bean in the credit listing? I didn’t realize he was in this!
The film begins with a riot – basically trying for that bit of deleted story Paul Anderson talked about in the commentary for one. I can’t help but notice that the prison’s owner, unnamed in the previous film is now being referred to as the Wayland corporation. It looks like someone is trying to place this in the Aliens universe.
Our driver for this film is Lucas, a Jason Statham lookalike who goes down for armed robbery and murder. Inside prison he discovers the Death Matches going on – televised gladiator fights between randomly selected prisoners. It’s interesting to see the elements in the death matches that carry over to the death race. Power ups exist here too. Hit the panel, grab the weapon. The matches have the same slick TV productions and sports announcers. It’s easy to see how it evolved.
The mastermind of this is Laurie Cohen in her pre-Walking Dead days. Almost strange to see her glamored out with makeup and that full long hair. I didn’t even recognize her until I skimmed the credits. She sees Luke driving and hatches the idea of creating the Death Race.
We don’t get to the race (in it’s prototypical state) until nearly an hour in, but once we do, you’ll find the cars look familiar. There’s less explanation and they seem less personalized to the driver, but once we hit the track, we’re back on familiar territory, with racing that is just as frenetic as ever.
Don’t expect to see much of Frakenstien here. We get a bit at the very end when they show the origin of the character. It’s rushed, not quite what I expected, but it works.
In general, the film feels a tad watered down from the previous. The new cast feel like replacements, they’re fun, but lack the gravitas of Staham and Ian McShane. Nevertheless, it’s just as entertaining as it’s predecessor, and makes for a good sequel. It promises a good series.
Somehow, right from the start, this feels like a Canon film. I don’t know if it’s the low angle, or the leather jacket on Bronson, but this movie definitely want’s you to know exactly what kind of film it is as Bronson guns down three men attacking a helpless woman.
Somehow Paul Kersey has a new family here – and let’s be honest. It’s only ten minuets in and I already know this is going to end badly for them. Sure enough, not even five minuets later the daughter is dead.
Because it’s the end of the 80’s and we’re firmly in formula mode now, this becomes “The Vigilante vs. Drug Dealers”! I kind of liked it better when the bad guys were leather clad punks, but any port in a storm. Bonus points for one of the dealers being Star Trek Voyager’s Tim Russ, not to mention that Danny Trejo’s in this thing as well (two more guys I’ve met over the years!).
It feels like the Punisher more than ever to me. The idea of the Vigilante being hired by a rich patron to wipe out the criminal element. It’s very reminiscent of the Punisher’s “Circle of Blood” storyline. Thre’s stalking, sneaking around and false names. The similarity is only enhanced by the fact that this time around, the Vigilante is going after the mob.
Its interesting to see the police investigation back and trying to find the Vigilante. Even the Architecture background of Paul Kersey is given some lip service, though his identity is still very much more wrapped up in being the vigilante than being an artist.
I can’t help but notice that jokes are starting to get attached to increasingly outrageous kills. “I wish he’d just drop dead!” as a gangster plummets from his apartment building window and plows into a windshield.
It’s one of the more interesting sequels though because just when you think it’s over, there’s a double cross twist waiting to spring. It’s a nice bit of innovation to keep the series fresh. In fact, it’s really got my interest up for the next one.