Death Race 1 & 2
Death Race (April 2/09)
Based on the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000, Death Race follows wrongly-imprisoned inmate Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) as he reluctantly agrees to participate in a deadly race in exchange for his freedom. In an effort at offsetting the inherent unfairness of the competition, Jensen is allowed to rely heavily on the assistance of several talented and thoroughly creative fellow prisoners (including Ian McShane's Coach and Jacob Vargas' Gunner) - yet this hardly prevents the institution's sinister warden (Joan Allen's Hennessey) from manipulating the proceedings to her benefit at every turn. Filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson initially does a nice job of establishing the almost dystopian nature of the movie's futuristic landscape, and there's subsequently little doubt that Death Race 2000 effectively sets itself apart from its campy predecessor right from the get go. It's only as Anderson places an increased emphasis on outlandish action sequences that one's interest starts to wane, as the writer/director infuses such moments with a number of entirely lamentable instances of stylistic trickery (ie quick cuts, shaky camerawork, extreme close-ups, etc). There's little doubt, however, that the viewer eventually does grow accustomed to the ADD-like sensibility with which Anderson has infused the movie's overtly high-octane interludes, with Statham's expectedly compelling tough-guy performance ensuring that one can't help but root his character's ongoing success. The film's length of 111 minutes ultimately reveals itself as Death Race's most insurmountable hurdle, as the unapologetically thin storyline - the movie essentially boils down to a series of races - inevitably buckles under the weight of the ludicrously overlong running time. It's also worth noting that the less-than-satisfying comeuppance for both Allen's Hennessey and her sinister henchman (Jason Clarke's Ulrich) effectively cements the wholly underwhelming nature of the movie's third act, although - admittedly - the opening hour is probably more entertaining than it really has any right to be.
Death Race 2
Death Race 2, a consistently underwhelming prequel to 2008's Death Race, follows Luke Goss' Carl Lucas as he arrives at Terminal Island Penitentiary and is subsequently forced to battle a variety of opponents, with the hand-to-hand skirmishes eventually giving way to a series of races in which prisoners can win their freedom. Director Roel Reine has infused Death Race 2 with a hopelessly (and downright distractingly) low-rent visual sensibility that's reflected most keenly in its fight and race sequences, with the filmmaker's misbegotten attempts at aping the original's twitchy sense of style transforming action-oriented moments into a overedited mess of nausea-inducing images. Compounding the film's less-than-entertaining atmosphere is its complete lack of engaging characters, which is, admittedly, both disappointing and surprising given that the cast has been populated with a number of well-regarded performers (including Sean Bean, Ving Rhames, and Danny Trejo). There's subsequently little doubt that one is forced to search long and hard for something (anything) of redeeming value here, and it's finally impossible not to label Death Race 2 as a worthless, especially egregious cash-grab designed to capitalize on the (mild) notoriety of its predecessor.