Death Race: Inferno Review
Wait a minute... you mean there was a Death Race 2?
2008's Death Race was, itself, something of a reworking of the original Stallone/Carradine 70s flick Death Race 2000. Both films skirted the fringe of b-movie status, with Statham’s remake sitting towards the lower echelon of his filmography. Whilst not a massive commercial success – and far from a noteworthy critical one – it was easy to see why filmmakers wanted to churn out more of this sort of crash-bang-mayhem. Trouble was, Death Race didn’t really leave things open for a sequel. Furthermore, Statham did not really want to do one. The obvious solution: make a cheap prequel.
Death Race 2: Frankenstein Lives was unleashed on quick turnaround back in 2010, starring Luke Goss in the lead role. Strangely, it was actually pretty good, particularly for a straight-to-DVD release, and so a further film was commissioned; Death Race 3: Inferno.
Surely by now you know the set-up? We are in the near-future. Prisons have been privatised, and the big corporations running them seek to cash in on their prize through the pay-per-view reality show, Death Race, whereby 15 convicted felons are pitted against one another in the ultimate car-based gladiatorial confrontation. The incentive: win 5 races and you and your pit-crew are freed.
Frankenstein is the current front-runner to reach this point: he’s on his fourth win and looking at freedom with his next run. The trouble is, everybody – even his own pit crew – think he’s dead. But a bit of surgery and a quiet word from the new warden, and he’s back in the mask ready to race again. This time, however, the goal-posts have been changed: this time, if Frankenstein wins, he won’t gain his freedom – he’ll be executed, along with his whole pit-crew. It’s time for Frankenstein to take a dive.
I only recently got around to seeing Death Race 2. Despite surprisingly positive reviews at the time of release, it just went under the radar. Normally I lap up these kind of straight-to-DVD features – Van Damme’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration, Wake of Death and Six Bullets; Seagal’s Maximum Conviction, Belly of the Beast and Into the Sun – but I’m not too fond of straight-to-DVD sequels, let alone straight-to-DVD sequels to films which were pretty throwaway actioners in the first place. Which is a shame, because it turns out Death Race 2 should have joined the ranks of the best straight-to-DVD releases out there.
Statham’s successor in the prequel, Luke Goss, is also highly underrated. Most people know him as one half of the boy-band Bros, but he has proven to be quite a competent little bit-part actor, never quite forging himself into a recognisable name in the Big League, but still popping up where you least expect him – the tough-ass villain in both Blade II and Hellboy II – and generally delivering an unexpectedly solid contribution, no matter how shoddy his surroundings.
Death Race 2 was a prime example and, between the strong storyline (which basically showed not only how Frankenstein was born, but how Death Race itself was born), the solid supporting cast – including a suitably menacing Sean Bean as well as Ving Rhames and Danny Trejo – and the impressive action sequences (particularly considering the budget), it was an absolute blast. Those coming in expecting a cheap rip-off of the 2008 flick might have even enjoyed it more than the Statham-starrer.
Death Race 3 is a whole different kettle of fish, however. Unfortunately, despite Goss’s best efforts, he is still at the mercy of the non-existent budget, set and location restrictions, and fairly limited script. To be fair, the script – which further fills in the gap between Death Race 2 and the events at the beginning of the original 2008 Death Race (where, in case you didn’t remember, a masked driver named ‘Frankenstein’ died spectacularly), is actually decent enough to have made for a watchable prequel. Or at least certainly one as good as the first prequel.
It involves back-stabbing prison managers, fighting amidst each other for the rights to the entity that is “Death Race”; conspiracies surrounding the enigma known only as Frankenstein, and the fact that basically anybody could be the man behind the mask – something established in the 2008 film and which should not be forgotten when watching these prequels – and the current man-behind-the-mask Carl Lucas, who is being compelled to lose this race, lest he lose his head (along with his friends).
To this end Luke Goss tries his utmost, both behind the wheel and out of his car, but it’s pretty-much a lost cause. In fact it pains me to say it but Goss probably got more room to shine during the Deleted Scenes of Death Race 2 than he does during the entire duration of this follow-up! He engages is more fighting than even Statham delivered in the 2008 movie – and has always been a decent martial artist (as can be evidenced in Blade II, Hellboy II and Death Race 2) – but what’s the point if his fights are so poorly captured that you can actually see his blows not connecting with his opponents? It was a problem vaguely evident on the last film, but here it’s hammered home throughout. And it looks cheap.
Similarly it’s hard to engage with the driving sequences when the cars, setting and weapons are so damn low budget. There’s some ludicrous missile tracking set-up which means that, if a driver leaves his vehicle and tries to escape, they can launch a targeted missile to blow him up – trouble is, whilst it could have made for an interesting twist (particularly when they admit the collateral damage that they will likely cause in a highly populated area), the actual payoff is cheap and shoddy, with the missile turning corners, flipping around and chasing its target like a wasp. Defying the laws of physics always leaves productions open to ridicule and this is just one of the many moments that will likely cause unintentional laughter in the viewer.
Then there’s the gladiator fighting. You see, the 2008 Death Race hinted that the precursor to “Death Race” was “Death Match”, a pay-per-view fight-to-the-death, with the same sort of step-on-panels-to-get-weapons set-up as the succeeding races. It was actually quite a clever way of keeping the budget down in the first sequel, Death Race 2, as they focussed initially on “Death Match” before committing to the racing. Here the trouble is that they’ve taken it to the ‘next level’ and have a series of women fighting each other to decide which of them get to be navigators in the race.
Now whilst, in the other movies, the female cast members were given little room to breathe – they were, by definition, just there to boost the ratings, at least they served a purpose. Here they’re pretty-much degraded by these undeniably poor gladiatorial sequences. It gets even more laughable/insulting when it comes to the utterly pointless shower scene. Indeed the girls are so poorly developed that you can barely tell who it is that is naked in the shower – is it model Tanit Phoenix (as I’m sure fans are hoping for) who returns here as Carl Lucas’s love interest? Or is it just some random girl, as would probably make sense given the preceding scene?
I’m not averse to having a whole lot of flesh on display – but do it with some style, take your cue from the Spartacus TV series if you’re going to have female gladiator fighting and gratuitous nudity; don’t make it cheap, pointless and totally irrelevant to the story at hand. It isn’t even scene-setting, it’s just time-wasting.
Perhaps the biggest misstep, however, is in terms of the race itself. This is “Death Race”, after all, and the 2008 movie certainly set the bar pretty high in terms of car-crashing, explosive-happy, bullet-spraying mayhem. Indeed it’s a pretty simple thing to get right in a movie that is about something called “Death Race”. Have a race, and pepper it with plenty of messy deaths. In Death Race 2 they had a halfway decent chase sequence towards the beginning (with lots of stylish slo-mo explosions!), and then kept the remaining budget for the final salvo. It worked.
Clearly by this third instalment they ran out of options and decided to instead play the race over pretty-much the entire duration, with it slowly dwindling with every lap, and never igniting into anything even slightly spectacular. Indeed it’s spectacularly uninteresting. Nobody hits anything with their weapons. Nobody does anything noteworthy in terms of driving. The vehicles are glorified dune buggies – if 2008’s Death Race was like a homage to the final chase in Mad Max 2: Road Warrior then this is closer to a poor-man’s Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome.
The setting – African shanty-towns; desert dunes and cliff-side passes – could have been used to good effect, but there’s almost no tension established in any of the chase sequences. Nobody is under threat. There are a few throwaway deaths along the way but nothing particularly memorable. It just feels cheap through and through, and it’s a real shock, considering that most of the same people (before and behind the camera) are involved here.
Certainly it’s the same director involved, Roel Reine, whose almost-entirely-straight-to-DVD credits also include the above-average Seagal flick Pistol Whipped, as well as the likes of The Scorpion King 3 and The Marine 2. He’s made something of a name for himself crafting halfway decent action films out of next to no budget, and somehow pulled of the last film with aplomb, but here he appears to have lost his edge. Perhaps he was unprepared for the different shooting conditions. Perhaps the wider open spaces made it harder to add any kind of style, punch or tension. Perhaps he just ran out of steam. Whatever the reason, fans of Death Race 2 will be disappointed by this inferior follow-up. Where Reine previously made his slo-mo stylisation work for him in the first prequel, here he goes overboard in the chopping, frenetic editing department (think: Taken 2, on ‘roids); where previously the score paid vague tribute to the already-average offering from the 2008 movie, here they just go for a loud, overbearing throwaway score that pounds you into submission.
The supporting cast don’t help. As stated, Goss always does his best, but in Death Race 2 he was ably assisted by a number of solid b-movie supporting characters – Sean Bean, Ving Rhames and Danny Trejo. Here Rhames and Trejo return, the former getting a marginally more interesting role, whilst the latter is utterly wasted. Then there’s Bean’s villainous replacement – Dougray Scott. It’s funny how close Scott has come to hitting the big-time over the years. He was the original choice for Wolverine, before Mission: Impossible 2 ran over schedule and left Hugh Jackman to immortalise the role; he was even due to replace Brosnan as Bond after 1999’s The World is Not Enough, but then Brosnan returned for the disappointing Die Another Day. Since then it’s all been downhill, with bit-parts in movies (My Week with Marilyn) but, more often than not, just TV work for the man. He’s ok in Death Race 3, but he seldom captures the relishing menace that Sean Bean brought to the last entry, coming across as a rather impotent little weasel, rather than a threatening overlord. Still the ultimate twist involving him is halfway decent.
In fact, it’s the twist ending that probably remains the biggest reason for fans of Death Race 2 to investigate this further film (and whilst not compulsory, seeing Death Race 2 will add significantly to your ‘enjoyment’ of this further chapter). Now some may be asking the valid question: after the events of Death Race 2, which seemed to lead directly into the start of the 2008 movie, what more was there to say about these characters? Well Death Race 3, as I mentioned towards the beginning, does actually have a reasonable narrative to it, and the ultimate revelations set things up quite satisfyingly for the opening segment in the 2008 movie. Indeed, they leave things open for a few more prequel/sequels if the filmmakers really want to make them. But I don’t think anyone else really will. If you enjoyed 2008’s Death Race then you should definitely give Death Race 2 a shot. If you enjoyed Death Race 2 then you’ll probably want to learn what happens to ‘Frankenstein’, but don’t expect this to be anywhere near the standard of even the first Straight-to-DVD prequel; a rental at best, they were scraping the barrel with this one.
NB. It is worth noting that this film was released in an ‘Unrated’ Cut in the US, despite its straight-to-video status. This is purely a marketing ploy: in the UK, whilst we don’t get any similar such ‘Uncut’ banner, this release is identical to the longer Unrated US release. The same occurred with the straight-to-video Death Race 2 release.
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