Death Race 2000, which was released back in 1975, is on my list of Top 50 Movies of All Time. It’s not only a fun action/comedy, but it features some clever satire that was a little prophetic in how it predicted the reality TV craze that is so prevalent in the media. It also featured a very young Sylvester Stallone in one of his first roles.
In 2008 Paul W.S. Anderson remade the film as Death Race and set the events in prison with an all-star cast including Jason Statham, Joan Allen and Tyrese Gibson. It was a supremely entertaining reimagining of the concept and contained some of the coolest race scenes I’ve ever seen.
A prequel to the remake called Death Race 2 was next starring Luke Goss, Danny Trejo, Sean Bean and Ving Rhames. It went direct-to-video, but it was a nice little surprise in that it was almost as much fun as the remake. It also went out of its way to make sure that events linked up to the previous film, which is something I found pretty awesome.
When I found out there was a sequel to the prequel, Death Race 3: Inferno, I wondered how the hell the makers of the franchise were going to pull it off. All the same players from part 2 are back, only Dougray Scott from Mission: Impossible 2 has replaced Sean Bean as the new villain. How does it hold up to the competition?
The story takes place right after the events of Death Race 2, in which Lucas/Frankenstein (Luke Goss) has been severely burned during a disastrous race and has to have extensive facial reconstruction in order to look normal again. Once he is out of surgery he learns that the warden of Terminal Island (Ving Rhames) has been forced to step down and sell the rights to the Death Race due to a hostile takeover by a mega corporation run by Niles York (Dougray Scott). York decides to go global with the race and transplants it to the deserts of Africa for a test run. Once again Lucas and his crew (Tanit Phoenix, Danny Trejo and Fred Koehler) must race for their survival.
I have to admit that for almost the entire run time I was not digging this sequel. The narrative is broken and fragmented, there are events that take place that have no reason behind them (Lucas shooting up the African gang house) and the characters seem to be speaking in some sort of shorthand that I had a hard time making heads or tails of. The races seemed to be filled with overly convenient ways for the competition to be taken out. Major characters die and there is no real weight behind it due to how detached we are from everyone because of the previously listed reasons. There were times where I wondered why I was still watching it.
Then there’s the ridiculous finale. I won’t ruin it for those that want to see the film, but there is a major event that goes down and then a completely contradictory ending is shown. I literally sat up and screamed at the television “Are you fucking kidding me?!” But I had jumped the gun. This movie had more in store for me than I had expected and in turn won me over by how complex and thought out every little detail ended up being. No spoilers since the less you know the more revelatory the surprise will be for you.
The acting is decent. It’s a direct-to-video release so you will find no Oscar caliber performances here. Although the actors do seem to be enjoying themselves immensely and it’s contagious. Even though I wasn’t enjoying the film I kept watching because they seemed to be having a blast during all the racing scenes. Luke Goss, who was great as the villains in Blade II and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, seems to require crazy make-up to turn in awesome performances… or maybe a great director like Guillermo del Toro. Regardless, he’s pretty bland here. Dougray Scott still hasn’t learned how to turn the scene chewing down from 11. He’s in full on Mission: Impossible 2 crazy mode here and he’s pretty annoying. The guy never was a good actor and his performance shows that his craft hasn’t improved at all in the following years. The best actor of the bunch is… Fred Koehler as Lists. He seems to enjoy playing off-kilter-yet-lovable types and he’s come a long way since his years on Kate & Allie. If there’s a fourth film I hope they bring him back again.
The race scenes are pretty much what you’d expect, but the open desert of Africa goes a long way toward making everything more epic than it would have been on the confined track from the first two films. There are some fun times to be had once the racers begin tearing through a shanty town during the second stage of the race. The big event, however, is a good old fashioned chick fight. The female navigators, about 30 of them, have to fight until there’s only enough left standing to team up with the racers. It’s bloody, brutal and there was even a flamethrower. Needless to say… I liked it a lot.
It’s nothing revolutionary, but I was surprised by how much of a 180 I did upon the film after seeing the epilogue. I was clearly not enjoying the film at all, but once the big reveal was played out I thought over the events in my head and it now all made sense. It’s actually a fun little film that I want to watch again now that I have prior knowledge of the events. It’s not every day that a cheap cash grab direct-to-video movie pulls the rug out from under you the way this one did.