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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The <i>Death Race</i> movies are the younger, dumber, cheaper <i>Fast & Furious </i>

The Death Race movies are the younger, dumber, cheaper Fast & Furious

Screenshot: YouTube
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The condemned: Death Race: Beyond Anarchy (2019)

The plot: Ten bucks says if you’ve seen Death Race, the 2008 Jason Statham-led remake (or “prequel” to the original Death Race 2000, in director Paul W.S. Anderson’s words), you can probably guess the entire plot of this movie within the first five minutes. We’ve somehow managed to get four films deep into this largely DTV Death Race franchise, but never has the phrase “give the people what they want” led to a more predictably routine story. And yet, it’s also ridiculous enough that you could drop in, having seen none of the prior movies, and find enough stupidly enjoyable crap to make your Sunday-hangover worthwhile.

With unemployment above 20% and crime at an all-time high, the government decides to build a giant wall around 138 square miles of an old factory town and turn it into a privately run penitentiary called The Sprawl. (It’s run by a company called Weyland International, a tip of the hat to a far superior future-set franchise.) Inside, a game called “Death Race” gives its incarcerated participants a chance to rule the Sprawl, but it got too popular or something. (Or the public turned on the idea of murder for entertainment? It’s unclear.) So it was outlawed. But you know what they say: When Death Races are outlawed, only outlaws will race death.

An underground group of hackers (a “legitimate cyber militia” in the movie’s lingo—aren’t you curious what makes them more legit than the other cyber militias?) installs a bunch of cameras and streams the new, illegal Death Races on the dark web, while the Warden of the Sprawl tries to periodically send in soldiers to quash the event, only to have his men chopped up into pieces, literally.

The head honcho of the Sprawl is a masked guy named Frankenstein (if you’ve seen the other films, he’s basically the hero each time), who’s won the last seven races. Unfortunately, this means he’s costing the bookies and cyber militias money, because who wants to bet against an unstoppable killing machine? So the head cyber gambling guy, Baltimore Bob (Danny Glover), wants someone new in charge for profit’s sake. And what a coincidence of timing—after a special ops attack on Frankenstein fails, the head of Weyland orders his Warden to come up with a way to beat Frankenstein live on camera, and then stop the Race.

Cut to nine days later, when a new crew of convicts are dropped into the Sprawl. This is how we meet Connor Gibson (Zach McGowan), apparently our protagonist (we only gradually learn this because the camera keeps following him around), who soon fights his way into getting a spot in the next Race, only to be exposed as a military Sergeant and Black Ops specialist sent in to take down Frankenstein on behalf of Weyland, meaning everyone is immediately gunning to take him out. Still, we’ve spent the most time with him and watched him deliver a few soulful monologues to a nice bartender named Jane (Christine Marzano), so I guess we’re on his side. Paired with a vengeful wingman sidekick named Bexie (Cassie Clare) who wants Frankenstein dead for her own reasons, we then spent the last half-hour of the movie in the Death Race, as Connor slowly defeats the others, and in a twist everyone saw coming, decides to take on the mantle of the masked Frankenstein and rule the Sprawl rather than going back into the outside world.

Over-the-top box copy: The Blu-ray boasts that the movie is “unrated and unhinged,” which is how you know it must’ve received some sort of more watered-down release abroad, because no one in America has access to the “rated and hinged” version. Also, the opening title cards note that “this film has been modified from its previous version to include material not in the original release,” which just makes me feel bad for the poor souls who had to sit through an iteration of this film that was slightly less ridiculous. My guess? That previous version edited out this particular shot of a hammer smashing a head open like one of Gallagher’s watermelons:

The descent: As a fan of disreputable B-movies—and more importantly, a fan of the energetically stupid 2008 Jason Statham vehicle, not to mention the Roger Corman-produced original (the two have very little in common)—I was curious to see what tactics producers had used to extend the shelf life of this bare-bones concept. It’s an endlessly renewable resource: A car race where the losers die. With such a fundamentally meat-and-potatoes idea, you would think there were any number of weird and inventive directions to take the story, kind of like how the Fast & Furious movies have gotten progressively more ludicrous. But just as this series of films is essentially a low-rent version of those movies (also ostensibly about vehicular action), with one-twentieth the budget apparently comes one-twentieth the imagination. This is basically the same movie as the others, only Frankenstein is (sort of) the villain for a change. The second film, much as in the F&F franchise, is by far the shittiest, taking an entire hour to get to the first race. The third returns more action, albeit in a mostly incoherent way, but kept the same creative team in front of and behind the camera as the previous installment. This film mostly resets the clock on previous storylines, so you really don’t need to know anything, even if you’re then confused by the wildly unnecessary presence of Danny Trejo’s subplot.

The theoretically heavenly talent: This was the first time starring in a feature film for the extremely buff Zach McGowan, best known to audiences for one of his TV roles (Jody Silverman on Shameless, Capt. Charles Vane on Black Sails, or Russian villain Anton Ivanov on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and he delivers plenty of that good lunk-headed B-movie action star glower. He went on to play the Scorpion King in The Scorpion King: Book Of Souls right after this, so it sounds like he’s rising to his proper place in life.

Illustration for article titled The Death Race movies are the younger, dumber, cheaper Fast &amp; Furious
Screenshot: Death Race: Beyond Anarchy

But we’ve also got returning franchise vets the Dannys (Glover and Trejo), both of whom look like they’re having a grand old time goofing around for a few days and collecting probably the biggest paychecks of anyone involved in this production. They’re both prolific players on the DTV beat these days (Trejo’s popped up before in this feature), and their names probably helped sell this puppy’s distribution rights overseas. There’s also the one guy who’s been in all four of the new Death Race films, Frederick Koehler, playing tech nerd Lists, about whom you might say, “Oh, I’ve seen that person before somewhere.”

The execution: For being about a hyper-violent dystopian future prison society that essentially runs free from supervision on a kill-or-be-killed mentality, there sure are a lot of topless women running around in Death Race: Beyond Anarchy. Written by the same guy who did the screenplays for the last two installments, the film’s obvious distaste for women as anything but objects for dudes to have sex with comes shining through in its logic-free decision to make sure an anything-goes city-sized prison still has a fully functioning strip club/sex club with a proper bartending staff. Even supposedly empowered characters like Connor’s badass-fighter sidekick Bexie looks at him and says things like, “I could suck you off right now.” Here’s some obviously crucial scene-setting:

There’s a bit of metalhead-camp sensibility to these decisions, like the movie’s trying for the agreeably bonkers style of something like Doomsday. But it’s not smart enough to think of anything actually provocative, so it settles for the adolescent shrug of sticking a nu-metal band into the proceedings at every opportunity and having topless (and sometimes fully naked) women gyrating in front of the camera as much as possible, preferably in slo-mo, occasionally followed by them going down on one another. (We never see a man’s penis, despite repeated scenes of naked guys and plenty of straight sex, so apparently it’s not so “unrated and unhinged” as to dispense with the director’s “no homo” ethos.) Here’s the movie’s relation to women in a nutshell: After a lengthy and graphic sequence of Frankenstein fucking his bound-and-subservient girlfriend doggystyle, she turns back to him and says, “That was incredible,” to which he replies, “Don’t fucking touch me.”

Wisely, the movie knows why you’re here, so it opens in the middle of a Death Race, immediately delivering some relatively decent explosions and action, though a bit too often of the “close up on people’s faces inside the cars” variety. Still, the movie sticks to the tried-and-true formula of making sure every car blows up in an enormous fireball when it crashes, regardless of plausibility, which is nice. And it’s not 10 minutes in before the Warden attempts that failed hit on Frankenstein, sending in a bunch of soldiers to try and kill the inmates, and it backfires horribly. After shooting all the would-be assassins, Frankenstein decides to drive his point home with some naked chainsaw-wielding men, who stroll out to make things a bit more personal. It’s deeply unnecessary, very silly, and definitely a good decision on the part of Beyond Anarchy. If only the film could stop thinking everything’s cooler in slow-motion.

I know I mentioned Danny Trejo’s presence a little while ago, but honestly, his scenes could completely disappear from the film, and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. His character Goldberg used to be an inmate, but has somehow gotten free and made his way to Mexico City, where he runs a gambling parlor and coordinates with Baltimore Bob to run the betting on the Race. Since he’s half a world away and his actions have no real impact on the events of the film, it’s the definition of a disposable cameo. Understandably, he seems like a very happy guy, which is a reasonable character development for someone who used to live inside a murder-happy prison island and now gets laid and hangs out having fun all day. He’s constantly smiling and saying things like, “I love racing!” as he watches screens of people being blown to smithereens. Here’s an image of him watching Frankenstein murder some people while a naked woman feeds him Cheetos one by one, and it captures his whole arc pretty efficiently.

Illustration for article titled The Death Race movies are the younger, dumber, cheaper Fast &amp; Furious
Screenshot: Death Race: Beyond Anarchy

For something that seems so rudimentary in its narrative, the actual plot is a bit incoherent. Frankenstein is ostensibly the villain, what with the whole trying to kill Connor and whatnot. But everyone in the Sprawl loves him, and his actions are fairly laudatory. When he first has a conversation with Connor, he walks him through the reasons it’s important the Sprawl has a strong leader who can resist the authoritarian machinations of the Warden and Weyland International. He even gives Connor some advice about needing to have a good plan for what to do if he wins and ends up having to lead all these people. That’s helpful! Which is strange, considering Connor’s victory almost certainly means Frankenstein’s death. (Though not necessarily, as the movie weirdly introduces multiple characters in the final Death Race as having competed several times before, so I guess it’s more of a Sometimes-Death Race.) The only reason he ends up not liking Connor is because it’s revealed our protagonist is a Special Ops badass hired by Weyland with the express purpose of killing Frankenstein and ending the Race. That is a not-unreasonable conclusion to reach! No one should like Connor! Connor doesn’t seem to particularly care for Connor! And yet, he’s ultimately our hero, by rejecting the outside world and donning the mask of Frankenstein. So, he killed a bunch of people for no real purpose, instead carrying on the status quo exactly as it was before he arrived. Cool mission. Heck of a guy.

The director, Don Michael Paul, does a briskly efficient job of keeping things bluntly watchable despite all the stupidities, though a lot of choices really pull you out of the film, such as seeing the elaborate and apparently warm outdoor apartment setup one character has, which, if you’re me, you spent the next few minutes ignoring the plot and wondering how the hell her exquisite bar setup doesn’t get raided and destroyed every time she leaves for work. Or wondering why characters are still forced to fight in a to-the-death hand-to-hand battle match (cleverly called “Death Match”) for the chance to drive a car, two qualities that would seem to have little in common. But he’s an old hand at these kinds of low-budget DTV sequels. In fact, he may be the hand when it comes to low-budget DTV sequels. A brief perusal of his directorial resume includes:

  • Lake Placid: The Final Chapter
  • Taken: The Search For Sophie Parker
  • Jarhead 2: Field Of Wire
  • Sniper: Legacy
  • Tremors 5: Bloodlines
  • Kindergarten Cop 2
  • Bulletproof 2

You get the idea. And as should be clear by now, he’s never met a shot he wouldn’t rather see in slo-mo, reason be damned. Hell, there’s one of those garden-variety car-building montages in this film (when Connor is prepping for the Death Race), and even that has slo-mo shots in it. This is followed by women gyrating around the car for no discernible purpose. But I suppose it’s worth it for images like this, where we see that, even in the blood-soaked apocalyptic prison-world future of Death Race: Beyond Anarchy, fans watching the event still wear giant foam fingers.

Illustration for article titled The Death Race movies are the younger, dumber, cheaper Fast &amp; Furious
Screenshot: Death Race: Beyond Anarchy

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: It’s a part of the Death Race franchise, which is a movie some people have heard of, so at the very least, it will remain a title in a series of films that had a popular first installment. No one can take that away from it.

Damnable commentary track or special features? The Blu-ray has a couple short promo features, which is how I learned it was shot in Bulgaria, a go-to location for such films, and how laid back Danny Trejo and Frederick Koehler are about being the familiar faces of the now decade-long series. The commentary track is between Paul and McGowan, and it’s of the hyper-positive, every-was-a-joy-to-film variety. It’s hard to begrudge McGowan in particular his enthusiasm, since it’s his first starring role and all. There’s a whiff of unintentionally humor at times, such as when Paul introduces a scene by saying, “Now we get to meet some of the mechanics, as Shakespeare would call them,” but the director rsums it up when he announces that, in directing Death Race: Beyond Anarchy, he “finally felt like I landed in a space where I should be.” Paul’s next movie? The Scorpion King: Book Of Souls, starring Zach McGowan.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.