Overall verdict: 5.5/10
The Good: great action despite small budget, solid production design, clear concise camerawork, stylish
The Bad: almost a clone of its predecessor, under developed characters, little substance
The 2008 Death Race film (itself a remake of the 1975 B movie Death Race 2000) was definitely not avant garde cinema. Critics drided it with mixed to negative reviews. It was a loud, visceral, simple action movie; all style, little substance in the grand Paul WS Anderson tradition. Death Race 2 is the cheap direct to video prequel, not a sequel as the title might seem to imply, and it is just more of the same. Even the main characters looks the same only with different names.
Now fans of the 2008 crash and burn thrill ride of a movie are in for a treat here. In Death Race 2, we discover the origins of the dangerous game; how it went from a simple prison fight caught on camera to a full blown TV ratings dependent gladiatorial combat. And then, to boost ratings, they added cars, a military arsenal and the brutal Death Race was born. Anybody remember the cool sounding masked Driver "Frankenstein" who appeared at the beginning of 2008's Death Race? Well here is his origin story. Before he became the famous Frankenstein, Carl Lucas (Luke Goss) was a getaway car driver for a crime boss Markus Kane (Sean bean). A heist gone wrong landed Carl a life sentence at Terminal island penitentiary, a prison famous for its broadcasts of "Death Match". With ratings of Death Match plummeting, one of the organizers "September Jones" witnesses Carl's driving skills and decides to revamp the games into "Death Race". Nine cars, three rounds, five wins to freedom. The no holds barred car-nage has just begun. As Carl puts his skills to the test, his former boss is planning his death, and he has someone on the inside to do it.
Synopsis sounds familiar? To say that the writers were lazy is an understatement. They basically took the exact same character types from the 2008 film and changed their names to be new characters. In other words, we got all the uninspired lines, one dimensional (and slightly racist) characterization, and minimal character development of the original show, but none of the star power the likes of Jason Stratham and Tyrese Gibson. Star power alone was what made the original character bearable and now with that gone, they are not as interesting to watch. Fans would recognize Robin shou and Frederick Koehler reprising their roles of "14K" and "Lists".
The main attraction here has always been the cars and the carnage. Despite having less than one third of the budget of Paul WS Anderson's 2008 film, Death Race 2 does a wonderful job of replicating all the excitement and adrenaline of the races. Perhaps too good a job as some scenes look 100% copied and pasted from that film complete with similar camera angles, same chain of events and even similar lines of dialog. The cars themselves and the sets do not look as well designed as its predecessor but remember, this took place before the 2008 film, and as such cars get rebuilt and the place gets upgraded as the days go by.
With the target audience being those who loved the brainless 2008 Death Race, Death Race 2 delivers no more than what they expect. If you thought its predecessor was bad, Death Race 2 would not change that impression. It is fun, it is violent, it is a glorified B movie just like Roger Corman's DeathRace 2000 and Paul WS Anderson's remake, and it is surprisingly well shot for a direct-to-video film. Definitely worth at least a rental but do familiarize yourself with the 2008 movie before jumping into this.
Go For it: if you are a fan of the original 2008 Death Race movie and would like to see the events that led up to that film
Avoid it: if you expect anything deeper or thought provking than simple, straightforward car on car action
Replay value: B