Each week, Netflix Watch Instantly adds hundreds of new titles. Four or five are movies you want to watch, some are bad TV shows or camp classics, and most make no sense at all. Those in the latter category are puzzling: not bad enough to be good and certainly not good enough to be interesting. In this column, comedian Max Silvestri will review a new film on Netflix Watch Instantly and ask, what is this?
What It’s About: In this prequel to Death Race, we learn how Carl Lucas becomes Frankenstein, a very popular prison death race driver.
Who It’s For: Drivers saddened by the lack of actual murder in their day-to-day commutes; Ving Rhames’ mom.
Let’s clear the air: I did not see all of the first Death Race, starring Jason Statham. Also that is not the first Death Race; the first is Death Race 2000, which came out in 1975. According to Wikipedia, 2008’s Death Race is a prequel to Death Race 2000. And seeing as Death Race 2 is also a prequel to Death Race, I guess that makes Death Race 2 a prequel to a prequel. What is the word for that? Preprequel? Anteprequltimate? A morigin story? If you are confused, I promise this paragraph is more complicated than Death Race 2.
I don’t have a very compelling reason for not finishing 2008’s Death Race. It did not make me mad. It certainly delivered on its promise to show a very deadly race. And of course I am unabashedly pro-Jason Statham, to the extent that I’ve seen more than one of his movies in the theater alone. But somewhere about halfway through the film I “got it.” Everything was grey or brown and metal and lots of guys in dirty t-shirts tried to stop one another’s vehicles from finishing the race, frequently through murder. That was enough for me. I felt confident that the film ended with Jason Statham earning his freedom and bad people getting what they deserved. I didn’t need to see it to know it to be true. I’ve never been to Italy but I trust that it exists. (Thanks Olive Garden.)
So while I do not have a lot of strong memories about that last film, I am positive I did not walk away wishing they’d explained more of Death Race’s back story. “But how did this race become a death race? How did Frankenstein get his mask? Why is it the most popular television program of all time?” I also definitely didn’t say, “This movie looks too expensive. Why won’t they make a cheaper version of it?” But Death Race 2 addresses both of those hypothetical concerns.
Carl Lucas (Luke Goss) is a robbery wheelman for gangster Markus Kane (Sean Bean), but after a bank heist goes awry and Carl shoots a cop, he’s sent to Terminal Island, a private prison under the control of the Weyland Corporation. (Carl is frequently referred to as “Luke” in the movie, which sort of makes sense because his last name is Lucas but also seems like a lazy way for the other actors to call the actor by his real first name.) Carl hates guns and didn’t mean to kill that cop, but he definitely did so it’s confusing when we are supposed to think he’s deep down a really great guy. After he sticks up for an autistic prisoner named Lists (Frederick Koehler) we forget all about that time he was a criminal his whole life and shot a cop.
Terminal Island hosts Death Match, a wildly popular televised competition where two inmates try to kill each other in an arena filled with booby traps and weapons and things. The arena is meant to be impressive and Thunderdome-y but it is literally just an abandoned bus in the middle of an empty lot. (“Where’d they get that old bus? This movie spared no expense!”) Prisoners try to kill each other with flame throwers and axes and things they find on the bus, “power-ups” which are accessed by stepping on special switches. It’s just like a video game! It’s like a video game you don’t get to play but also it doesn’t look as good as any video game made in the last twelve years. This movie is like watching someone else play Dreamcast, poorly.
The mastermind and host of Death Match is September Jones (Lauren Cohan). We are told she was stripped of her Miss Universe crown for allegations of having sexual relations with all five judges. Was it ever proven? We don’t know. We do know that she tries to bang everyone all the time, including her boss at the Weyland Corporation, Weyland (Ving Rhames). She’s got her eye on Carl Lucas as a future star of her barbaric show. “Even his name gives me a hard-on.” That’s how we find out she has a big hard penis.
After a race riot breaks out in the middle of Death Match, the prison pulls the plug on the whole thing and Jones is left to brainstorm a new idea. After seeing Carl “Luke” Lucas drive an old car around the prison very quickly (what?) she’s inspired. She says to Weyland, “I propose a race: wicked, epic.” (“Wicked epic” is also how people in New England describe an Allman Brothers concert at the Cape Cod Melody Tent.) Weyland pitches this concept to his board members. He says, “We’ll call it… Death Race.” Everyone claps at the brilliance of the name he conjured out of nowhere, which poetically fuses “Death Match” and “Race” together, seamlessly.
The Death Race, which features modified old cars and weapons and traps and more switches, is an immediate ratings smash. If a prisoner wins five races, he wins his freedom. There’s lots of talk and visual representations of the show’s “share” rising, as in 70% of the world is watching Death Race. What inspired and thoughtful points this film makes about the depressing trajectory of modern entertainment, the bloodlust of the masses, prisoner human rights, extreme sports, and the risks of privatizing state-run systems. I am kidding; none of these points are either inspired or thoughtful. They probably don’t need to start showing this film in classrooms.
Meanwhile, Markus Kane, not trusting his driver Lucas to keep his mouth shut in prison, puts a one million bounty on Carl “Luke” Lucas’s head. This is meant to complicate things for Carl, but everyone is already trying to kill him on the track so it doesn’t really accomplish anything except allowing the movie to keep showing Sean Bean sitting with his persistently topless girlfriend eating sandwiches and grapes and things.
There is lots of racing and murdering and scheming and things. A number of the racers die. Carl has sex with his lady-prisoner teammate on top of that abandoned bus. That scene has lots of scenes of his butt but not hers, an odd choice for a movie aimed squarely at men. He has a good butt I guess. But whatever, this column is not called Butt Review.
Carl’s luck runs out, and he goes from bus-sex to missile-fire, when a rocket launcher explodes his car. He is terribly burned, and Jones worries she’s lost her star. But she seizes an opportunity: she tells the world Carl is dead, thereby freeing him from the danger of Kane’s bounty, and she invents a new Death Race hero: Frankenstein. She calls the new Lucas “Frankenstein” because he wears a metal mask and we all know that Frankenstein famously wore a mask. (Frankenstein is German for the “Man in the Iron Mask.”) Frankenstein re-enters the race and immediately runs over Jordan, which does not seem to bother her boss Weyland. Bad guys who owe Lucas a favor murder Kane.
And now we know how Frankenstein came to be Frankenstein in Death Race. Are you so satisfied? It’s weird how I’m even alive seeing as I haven’t slept since 2008. “Why is Frankenstein?!” is what I’ve been yelling in the middle of the night non-stop for almost three years. I’m very sick! This movie does not explain how Frankenstein went from being played by Luke Goss to being played by David Carradine, Frankenstein in Death Race. Oh well. Maybe they’ll make another direct-to-DVD movie to explain that one.
When You Should Watch It: The summer solstice, which is also traditionally known as Death Race Day, the pagan holiday on which all three Death Race films are watched in chronological order, and then again by order of release.
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