Rev up for the ultimate rankings for everyone’s favorite dystopian car-mayhem action franchise!
Death Race 2000 is a B-movie classic from Roger Corman about a relentless car race through a dystopian United States where the drivers could score extra points by killing pedestrians. Paul W. S. Anderson, who is primarily known for adapting video games into movies, decided that in 2008 the time was right for a remake, and made Death Race.
The only thing it had in common with its predecessor was the existence of a car race with no rules. Instead of a race through the country, the setting was relocated to a prison. Most of the social commentary was also dropped, except for some display of corporate ruthlessness. The first Death Race spawned three sequels where Anderson stayed in creative control as producer and/or writer. In 2017, the movie Death Race 2050 was released, which was not related to Anderson’s Death Race series, and was a more or less faithful remake of the original Death Race 2000.
None of the movies will win a prize for originality, as they all follow the same basic premise of a deadly car race as the centerpiece of the story. That’s not a bad thing in itself, as all of them are fun to watch, and there are still enough differences between them to warrant a closer look. Which one you may like most depends on what you except to get out of your action movies. Production quality and mass appeal were highest with the first part, and with each new installment the franchise got more violent and nasty.
The production budget also decreased with every new release, but that was not a detriment to their entertainment value. The Death Race franchise provides plenty of gritty action, and if you want a change from the glossy and PG-13 rated style of the Fast & Furious series, it’s certainly worth checking out. In this article, I’ll rank the new Death Race movies from bottom to top.
5) Death Race 2050 (2017)
Of all the recent Death Race movies, Death Race 2050 is the only faithful sequel to Death Race 2000. The United Corporations of America rule over most of the world, and to keep the population entertained, every year the Death Race is held. Drivers score points not only for reaching a checkpoint first, but also for running over pedestrians. Frankenstein is the undefeated champion of the Death Race, but faces fierce competition from the other racers, who resort to the most violent means to get ahead in the race.
In the world of Death Race 2050, The American Dream of prosperity has become an agonizing existence for the population, and the country has been ravaged by global warming and environmental disasters. The competitors of Frankenstein are all exaggerated manifestations of the manifold negative aspects of our current society. Death Race 2050 shares similarities in attitude with previous satires on US culture, such as Idiocracy and Postal, most notably the comic-like style and fast succession of plenty of absurd situations and humor. And just as with these two movies it will probably divide audiences, as the satirical aspects probably will not sit well with many people, and an equal amount probably will find the humor too tasteless.
Manu Bennett gives a stoic performance as the movie’s lead character Frankenstein. Everyone else plays their role as crazy as possible, with a memorable performance from Burt Grinstead as genetically engineered superhuman Jed Perfectus, that is highly confused about his sexual orientation. Special effects are cheap, but fit the overall comical tone of the movie.
The racing cars look like they were made from cardboard, and the racing scenes themselves are also shot rather low-key. Practical effects are used frequently when body parts are flying through the air as people are crushed by the race cars. Apart from the racing scenes, there’s plenty of other goofy action going on, such as fights with ninja assassins, motorcycle bandits, and an AI-controlled car with an emerging conscience on a killing spree.
Some nudity is also on display to tick off all the boxes required to get a solid R-rating. Death Race 2050 never gets boring, and is not a bad movie by any means. It’s just a very campy affair, and the action scenes are of relatively low quality, which inevitably means that it takes the last place in this ranking.
4) Death Race 3: Inferno (2013)
The Death Race around masked star driver Frankenstein is back, and this time the race goes through the countryside of South Africa. Frankenstein has won four races, and is only one race away from earning his freedom. The new owner of the franchise, York Niles, is determined to not let him win, as he sees the popularity of the show threatened if Frankenstein’s leaves the field of contestants. Lucas devises a plot to outsmart Niles while fending off his contestants in the different stages of the race.
Both Death Race 2 and 3 were shot in South Africa, but this time the racing crews are also relocated to South Africa for story purposes. Other than that nothing has really changed, the old crew from Death Race 2 is back, which adds some continuity. Dougray Scott takes over the villain role from Sean Bean, a British accent seemed to be required to play the bad guy for these two movies.
Death Race: Inferno delivers almost non-stop action at the expense of anything that would even resemble a coherent plot. The quality of the acting and the dialogues seem to have received less attention than in the predecessors. But if low-cost explosions, stunts and demolitions are your thing, you will be really happy with this one. As the races are about long distances, the editing of the action scenes is less hectic than in the circuit-based races from the previous installments, and there’s a nice variety of racing locations for a change.
There’s also a lot more cleavage than in the previous movies, and a sequence with ultra-brutal catfights between the lightly clad female co-pilot candidates, that features impaled heads, cut-off ears, and exploding bodies. Death Race: Inferno aims even more at the viewer’s lower instincts than the previous two installments, and is certainly a guilty pleasure, but still not as sleazy as it’s successor Death Race: Beyond Anarchy.
3) Death Race (2008)
In the prison of Terminal Island, a car racing tournament is run by the ruthless prison warden Hennessey and broadcast live to paying audiences. The biggest star of the race, the masked Frankenstein, is killed in one of the races. Ex-racer Jensen is framed for murder, put into prison, and is forced to join the Death Race as a new driver. The first Death Race featured Jason Statham in the lead role.
At that time this was almost a guarantee for a box office success, and the movie was also reasonably successful. Death Race is only very loosely based on the original movie, the only thing the two have in common is that there’s a lethal car race, other than that Death Race creates its own setting. The movie had by far the highest budget of all movies in the franchise, and it shows. It looks slick, the action scenes are elaborate, and with Jason Statham we get the best actor in the main role of all Death Race movies.
While the movie certainly is entertaining is has its share of dull moments, though. First, there’s a lot of shallow melodrama that slows the movie down significantly at times. Also, everything looks just a bit too glossy for a dystopian prison setting, and the movie is too serious for its own good. The race scenes are staged very energetically, but are not exactly crazy as one may have hoped for a movie called Death Race.
The action also suffers from the high-frequency Michael-Bay-style editing that makes it occasionally difficult to follow what’s actually going on. Death Race is the tamest entry in the series, and a fairly sterile, but still fun movie that is mostly saved because of Statham’s charisma and physical presence.
2) Death Race 4: Beyond Anarchy (2018)
The Sprawl is a large prison complex with hundreds of thousands of prisoners and no guards. Frankenstein is the ruler of the Sprawl, and oversees the Death Race that takes place inside the prison. Connor is part of a new wave of prisoners, and manages to stick out by not getting killed instantly after arrival. He quickly learns how to survive in The Sprawl, and earns himself a driver’s spot in the Death Race.
The fourth regular installment does not connect story-wise to its predecessors. The setting is different, it’s a copy of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, and Frankenstein takes on the villain role this time. The movie was shot in an abandoned industrial complex in Bulgaria, which provides an even more run-down and filthy setting that the previous movies. The location is used very efficiently, though, and the set pieces look pretty good for a production that was shot with even less money than parts 2 and 3.
Zack McGowan of Black Sails renown plays the new main character, and while he may be trying to give his best Snake Plissken impression, his performance comes across as a bit lazy. Maybe I’m also only imagining this, as everyone else in this movie just acting it out so hysterical, and almost every character looks like they walked over from the set of a Mad Max movie. Death Race: Beyond Anarchy ramps up the profanity, sex and violence even more than any of the previous installments, with a noteworthy example being a fight where naked guys are attacking and dismembering their opponents with chain-saws.
It’s certainly the most exploitative of the whole series, and we don’t get much comic relief. There’s also only one big race towards the end of the movie, but it’s filmed rather well, with a couple of cool stunts and crashes, and a nice selection of crazy cars that look like they were all inspired by video games like Carmageddon or Twisted Metal. Death Race: Beyond Anarchy delivers a wild, sleazy ride that will please everyone looking for unrestrained mayhem on all fronts.
1) Death Race 2 (2010)
Carl Lucas is a getaway driver for local crime Boss Marcus Kane. One day a heist goes wrong, and he is sent to the prison of Terminal Island. There, the Weyland corporation organizes the Death Match, a deadly martial arts contest, which is reorganized into the Death Race by the devious corporate manager September Jones. Lucas joins the race with the outlook of gaining freedom when winning the race five times, while also needing to fend off Kane’s henchmen who have infiltrated the prison.
The second Death Race movie is actually a prequel to the first movie, just as the third part, which however is a sequel to the second part. From Death Race 2 onwards, budget-wise things were taken down a notch, and none of the movies was released in theaters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it enabled the franchise to drop some of the compromises that were made in the first part to appeal to a larger audience. That means we get more violence, more cynicism, and generally more voyeurism in every department. For Death Race 2 and 3 Luke Goss took the helm from Jason Statham.
And while he is not an A-list actor, he certainly has the charisma and muscularity needed for his role. He is joined by an illustrious cast which consists of Danny Trejo, Ving Rhames, and Lauren Cohan as vicious femme fatale running the show. Even Sean Bean got talked into participating. He gives a cliched, but enjoyable performance as rude and treacherous mobster boss.
The movie starts with a heist on a bank for cash (in 2010!), and the explosive car chase that follows sets the stage properly. Once Lucas is thrown into prison, things really get going with prisoners and corporate managers alike pursuing their criminal and violent agendas. The action scenes are more modest than in the first part, but still pretty decent, with plenty of nicely filmed car stunts and explosions. Plus there’s some good brawls in the Death Match, that serves as a prelude for the race.
Death Race 2 also utilizes the charming old-school idea that whenever a car crashes into anything, it has to explode. The movie continued with having a sexy female co-pilot for every driver, who for the most part had absolutely nothing to do during the race, other than providing eye candy for male audiences. Despite the actual race only emerging during the second half of the movie, there’s never a dull moment. Death Race 2 may be the “sweet spot” for the series in terms of maximizing entertainment value while not becoming too sleazy or stupid. It’s a well composed piece of old-fashioned genre entertainment that takes the top spot of all the recent Death Race movies for me.