Death Race 3: Inferno (2013)
Luke Goss (Carl Lucas), Tanit Phoenix (Katrina), Dougray Scott (Niles York), Danny Trejo (Goldberg), Fred Koehler (Lists), Ving Rhames (Weyland), Robin Shou (14K), Eugene Khumbanyiwa (Nero), Bart Fouche (Razor), Jeremy Crutchley (Psycho), Michelle van Shaik (Olga), Archive Footage of Joan Allen (Fake Hennessey), A Picture of Ian McShane (Sir Not Appearing in This Movie)
“On your marks. Get set. Kill. Death Race, the number one sport in the world. Located on Terminal Island. Convicts race over the course of three grueling days for the chance at the ultimate prize: win five races, win your freedom.” – announcer guy.
Death Race 2 was good but still as underwhelming as one would expect a direct-to-video sequel, starring a character we all saw die in the first movie no less, to be. There were a few loose ends left, obviously Katrina and Goldberg have to die or get released so that Ian McShane and Natalie Martinez’s character can come into play, but we’ve got Lists, Frankenstein, Hennessey, and 14K all in the places they need to be. So gear up for some more plodding tire spinning as we rumble on to our foregone conclusion.
Oh, wait… hold on. This one isn’t set on Terminal Island, it turns out that billionaire dickhead Niles York has bought Death Race from Ving Rhames’ Mr. Weyland, and he wants to franchise it. So he’s pulling Frankenstein and 14K out and putting them in a Death Race in the Kalahari desert to get a desert-racing spinoff going.
Okay so we’ve got a new setting, new vehicles, and this time the actual Death Race is the focal point of the movie instead of a tacked on thing in the last 40 minutes. We even settle up the plot from last time with Carl Lucas getting his face fully restored (because prosthetic makeup is expensive) and his team finding out that he’s still alive when he gets his impractical iron Jason Voorhees mask knocked off in a fight. Okay, it’s a bit hokey but we’re off to a good start.
This time we’ve got more memorable drivers, even the nobodies who die pretty quick almost all get good moments. 14K is as superfluous here as he was in the first movie but Robin Shou needs work other than signing pictures of Liu Kang at comic conventions. They even brought in a new Nero, though he’s as much if not more of a red herring than Death Race 2000’s Nero.
This movie is actually pretty much all red herrings, there’s a plot going on underneath the surface that gets revealed at the end in a Saw-esque flashback that goes back to certain key scenes and extends them past their original cut to show us the machinations going on behind the scenes. It’s a bit convoluted but it does tie the story up in a fun and interesting way and answers the key question of “why?” in regards to these movies.
A lot of the problems of the last film are solved: the vehicle action looks even better and while the herky-jerky camera still pops up occasionally the action shots (aside from the hand-to-hand fighting) look really good. The cars are mostly varied and there’s a good amount of deliciously violent and explosive stunts, particularly for such a small budget (actually about half a million dollars less than Death Race 2.)
This is the first movie in the series to actually set the plot around the race rather than the other way around. In much the way Pulse 3 did with Pulse 2, Death Race 3 uses all the boring plot junk introduced in Death Race 2 to serve as all the exposition it needs and plows right into the action, letting the characters and set-pieces drive the film without having to worry about introducing anything.
Death Race 3 does a lot more with Frankenstein’s crew than Death Race 2 or even the first Death Race did with their side characters. Carl Lucas isn’t just on the side of Goldberg, Lists, and Katrina: they’re his friends and there’s a very good chemistry between the four that comes across onscreen even though they don’t have a lot of scenes together. Lists even gets a pretty emotional sendoff (because he has to still be around for the events of the first movie) that surprisingly works.
And while track-villain Razor is pretty forgettable (spoiler: he survives the movie and it doesn’t even bother to address this fact), off-track villain Niles York (Dougray Scott) is delightful, so is his sidekick-ish character Satana (Hlubi Mboya) who serves as the Death Race’s MC. Luke Goss continues to impress me by being surprisingly compelling for such a flat boring performer. Danny Trejo and Fred Koehler continue to prove that they’re very underrated performers by bringing their one-note characters to life and Tanit Phoenix actually finally makes Katrina a character I feel like remarking about though she’s fairly unimportant for most of the movie (despite the fact that she’s an active participant in a lot of it.) We’ve even got some memorable one-off drivers such as Psycho, Joker, and Olga who manage to make their very small parts of the movie enjoyable.
Once again there’s really no satire to be found but the movie does actually play more into the serious angle, albeit it only in small parts. There is one scene where the racers enter a village where the townspeople are standing out on the track waving signs and telling the drivers to leave, when one car crashes they actually pull the driver and his navigator out and beat them to death. It’s not anything quite like the rebels from Death Race 2000, but it at least shows a bit more political commentary than the previous entry did.
Now here be spoilers so close your eyes until the end of the paragraph if you’re scared of the truth. I appreciate the whole plot, somebody realized that Carl Lucas was just too likeable to die and it’s a nice reversal to have Lucas sneak off like Jensen Ames did with his crew and leave the villain to be stuck wearing the Frankenstein mask. So instead of having to fall in love with a dead man we get to celebrate that Niles York gets his comeuppance in the best way and retroactively not feel so bad for the guy who blew up at the beginning of the first movie. I still can’t help but feel that this could’ve and would’ve worked better as a proper sequel to the first movie but it does its job capably enough.
I’ve really got to give Roel Reine some credit, he seems to be far too great a talent for all this direct-to-video crap he almost exclusively seems to direct because he really has polished a turd here. I can only imagine what the man could do with a good writer and a budget. I daresay that this movie is on par with Death Race for me on the likeability scale, its actors aren’t as good and its budget shows a bit more but it makes the best out of what it has and manages to be a lot of fun.
So you know how Roger Corman is currently making Death Race 2050? Well IMDb has a listing for Death Race 4 with a “currently filming” next to it. Now it wouldn’t be the first time that IMDb has been filled with filthy lies, the page only has 4 actors listed and no director (Paul W.S. Anderson is listed as producer once more) but it would be interesting to see the original Death Race franchise going head to head with the remake franchise on the VOD market (I make no illusions that any of these films will be within miles of a movie theater.)
Surprisingly the Death Race sequels are not terrible and this didn’t turn out to be as bad as I expected. Unfortunately I’m honor bound to also touch on the unofficial Death Race remake that came out the same year as the real remake. We’re going to a very dark place now. Woop woop!
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