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Death Race 3: Inferno – film review

October 17, 2013

DEATH RACE 3: INFERNO

A franchise run off the road returns to form and rediscovers its former potential – but where to from here?

death race 3 frankenstein and katrina

Directed by Roel Reine. Screenplay by Tony Giglio. Story by Tony Giglio and Paul W.S. Anderson. Based on characters created by Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith. Starring: Luke Goss, Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo, Dougray Scott, Fred Koehler and Tanit Phoenix. Year of release: 2012. Running time: 105 mins.

In 1956 a ten page story appeared in the little-known men’s magazine Escapade. Entitled ‘The Racer’, it told of a transcontinental road race across America in which the participants are encouraged to run down pedestrians in order to gain points and win the race.

escapade magazine january 1956

Escapade Magazine, January ‘56.

The story’s protagonist, a seasoned racer named Willie Connors; begins to feel pangs of guilt after (uncharacteristically) stopping at the scene of ‘an accident’ he was responsible for and witnessing first-hand the pain and suffering of the innocent victims whose lives he has destroyed. Written by celebrated Hollywood ‘scenarist’ and later successful author of war fiction, Ib Melchior (most famous in sci-fi circles for his helming of the 1959 B-movie The Angry Red Planet and co-writing 1964’s classic Robinson Crusoe On Mars) – the inspiration for ‘The Racer’ came from an experience Melchior had while attending a local speedtrack. As he remembers it, “Hearing the crowd roar with enthusiasm after a particularly grisly smash-up, I realized the onlookers weren’t there to see who won … but who died. After that disconcerting experience, the story just seemed to pour out of me.” Interestingly, no mention is made of the gleeful reactions to the carnage by spectators in either Melchior’s story or any of the subsequent movie adaptations – which is ironic really, considering it was this very reaction which initially inspired him to write the piece in the first place (about as close as we get to this in Death Race 2000 is the unbridled jocularity of the race commentator and in the remake trilogy – the rapid rise in viewership numbers after each successive kill).

In 1974 legendary producer Roger Corman decided the short story’s premise would make for an entertaining low-budget action picture, with the added element of satire softening the amorality inherent in the original tale. Despite this shift in tone and the fact that the protagonist is completely different (renamed Frankenstein in the movie due to the amount of reconstructive surgery he has supposedly endured) – there are remarkable similarities between the source material and the movie ultimately made     as Death Race 2000. The idea that the designs of several of the cars which appear     in the film are based on animals is taken directly from ‘The Racer’. Indeed, the car driven by Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov) in the movie – with its bull-like features and lethal stabbing horns – is virtually the same as described in the story – ‘the front of the car was built like a streamlined bull’s head complete with bloodshot, evil-looking eyes, iron ring through flaring nostrils – and the horns’ – although in ‘The Racer’ this particular vehicle (referred to as ‘The Bull’) is actually driven by the protagonist Willie Connors and not by a supporting character as in the resulting film.

Death Race 2000 the bull

Another similarity between Corman’s picture and the source story is that in both, the individual racers conceal their intended routes from the public so that they may catch more pedestrians unawares and thereby increase their prospective body count. There is also reference to a movement opposed to the brutality of the races – although in ‘The Racer’ they are only mentioned in passing (referred to as anti-racers) – whereas in the movie they are portrayed as fully-fledged political terrorists who proactively attempt to disrupt the race – themselves resorting to violent means to carry out     their agenda.

The movie’s celebrated satire lies in the idea that the United States president provides the Transcontinental Road Race as entertainment for the masses as a means of control – much like the ‘bread and circuses’ employed by the powers that be in Ancient Rome. There are also scenes of dark comedy such as the hospital scene where nursing staff wheel terminally ill patients out onto the road as part of ‘Euthanasia Day’ – only to be run down themselves by an indifferent Frankenstein (played by David Carradine). Incidently, Frankenstein’s indifference towards his victims is really the only character trait which connects him to the character of     Willie in the source material.

Sadly none of what made ‘The Racer’ and its subsequent film adaptation fresh and original appears in the 2008 reimagining-cum-prequel, written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson, a polarizing visual stylist who came to prominence with two admitedly trashy, but hugely successful video game adaptations Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil – pitched to Roger Corman the idea of updating Death Race 2000 for the 21st century X-Box generation. In Anderson’s movie (now simply titled Death Race) – the filmmaker abandons entirely the central premise of a Transcontinental Road Race, where pedestrians are fair game – in favor of a concept which more resembles one of his beloved video games.

death race 2008

Eschewing the open road for a more confined (read: less pricey) prison setting, Anderson describes his version as ‘Gladiator meets The Shawshank Redemption’ – which, thematically at least, is not too far from the mark. Jason Statham plays Jensen Ames, a wrongly-accused man (is there any other?) – who is imprisoned in     a violent hell hole and forced to participate in a live-streamed and brutally violent car race – where the goal is to wipe out the competition and be the last man alive for the ultimate prize of a full pardon and release back into society. What Anderson has essentially done with this version of the concept is completely ignore aspects of     the Ib Melchior story which Corman utilized and instead focus on the additions specifically created for the Corman film. Hence we have: no race on the open road, no pedestrian body count, no dissenting movement against the race and no fanciful designs for the cars themselves. Aspects retained from the Corman original include: the hero worship of the character of Frankenstein and the fact that he is a fabricated persona whom the film’s protagonist is forced to begrudgingly impersonate. Also retained is the use of exotic nom de plumes for the other racers (Machine Gun Joe, 14K, Chop Top, The Grim Reaper etc) and the idea that each racer has a busty, hot female navigator in the seat next to him – although in the Corman version, the fact the navigators are busty and hot is never explained – whereas here; the justification (as far as the narrative is concerned) is that they have been added as ‘window dressing’ by the race organizers to sexy up proceedings and boost viewing numbers – not to mention attract more teenage males to the actual movie theatre itself.

natalie martinez death race

Latin hottie Natalie Martinez plays Jensen’s navigator Case.

Aside from the enclosed race track within a prison setting and the down and dirty jerrybuilt look of the cars (armor-plated Mustangs, Porsches and Jaguars) – the     video game aesthetic is further emphasized with the introduction of pressure plates scattered at intervals throughout the course – these activate a car’s onboard defences and weapons capabilities when a vehicle travels over them – a clever example of adapting a familiar video game trope into a real world setting. The look     of the graphics showing updated scores, stats and driver information are also reminiscent of those you might find in video games. As for the movie itself – despite my initial misgivings at the liberties taken with the original concept, Death Race is still a great deal of fun in an undemanding B-movie kind of way. And Jason Statham is watchable as always.

In 2010 the moderate success of Death Race spawned the inevitable direct to video follow up which was again co-written by Anderson – but directed this time round by Dutch helmer Roel Reine. Despite operating on a budget one tenth the size of the original’s $70 million – production value is still remarkably maintained, thanks in part to the production relocating from Montreal, Canada to Cape Town in South Africa. Essentially a prequel to the previous film, this second installment reveals how and why the inaugural Death Race was conceived and tells the backstory of the creation of the original Frankenstein. Our new protagonist is Carl ‘Luke’ Lucas, a getaway driver captured after fleeing a bungled bank robbery and imprisoned on Terminal Island.

death race 2 phoenix and goss

‘Contestants are convicted felons, acts should not be duplicated at home.’

The role of Luke is played by English actor Luke Goss, a name which may be familiar to anyone who grew up in the 80’s as being one half of the boy band Bros (best known for their hit single ‘When Will I Be Famous?’). Goss also featured in Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (playing inhuman villians) with Death Race 2 being an opportunity for him to play a leading man without having his rugged good looks hidden under layers of prosthetics. While some may dismiss Goss out of hand as being nothing more than a low-rent replacement for Jason Statham – he does indeed hold his own in the role. While perhaps more stoic than his predecessor (and lacking the dry wit of Statham) – Goss certainly has a particular screen presence which is appealing (at times resembling a young Clint Eastwood). South African glam model Tanit Phoenix plays Luke’s navigator and love interest, Katrina – ably filling out the tight-fitting jeans and tank top worn by the ultra sultry Natalie Martinez in the previous film.

Compared with the previous installment, Death Race 2 isn’t nearly as action-packed as its predecessor and perhaps relies a little too much on backstage machinations for much of its running time. Aside from the exciting downtown car chase which opens the movie, there is no real actual race action till well into the film. This is not to say there is no action to speak of – the gladiatorial prison bouts (involving both male and female inmates) are well-staged and brutal – conceived as a precursor to Death Race. The image of Tanit Phoenix in a bikini top wielding a flame-thrower is definitely a sight to see.

Despite being the weakest of the three Death Race movies, Death Race 2 does indeed serve its purpose as being the bridging episode leading into the finale – and what a finale it turns out to be.

Death Race 3: Inferno (again helmed by Reine) fondly restores the satirical tone of Corman’s original, while ditching the grim seriousness of the previous entries. Once again lensed in South Africa (on a budget $1 million less than the previous film) – this installment actually takes place in that country – the idea being; the Weyland Corporation are hoping to franchise Death Race as a world-wide concern. While the vehicles and drivers remain ostensibly the same, the race itself has undergone a major makeover – leaving its prison setting behind to become a cross-country rally through the shanties of Cape Town and its dusty surrounds. The race sequences are visceral, loud and exciting – the filmmakers clearly going for a Road Warrior feel with the practical car action and stunts.

deathrace 3 2013

Not so long ago the term ‘Direct To Video’ was synonymous with inferior product (in comparison with cinema-released films anyway) – however, in this new age of digital filmmaking: as Death Race 3 ably demonstrates – lack of quality is no longer a factor, and I have to say: this film looks amazingly good. Considering the budget       is a great deal less than the initial installment, the filmmakers here have achieved remarkable results with maintaining production values. The stunt-work, photography and the look of the film are all top notch. The art direction could be best described as neo-fascist, with the portrayal of South Africa suggesting a return to the bad old days of apartheid (albeit heavily stylized) using black-shirted prison guards holding Hyenas on leashes instead of Dobermans. And the look of the prison where the racing teams are held between races (clearly an abandoned mine) has the MTV sheen of 80’s rock videos; with its growling searchlight beams and improvised set dressing recalling movies such as Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

While undoubtedly the most violent of the Death Race films so far – Tanit Phoenix, for example, is forced to compete in a gladiatorial bitch fight which culminates in a brutal stabbing and decapitation – the horror is offset by the film’s borderline goofy sense of humor. In what could be described as ‘Verhoevenesque’ – the humor is     very similar to that found in Robocop or Starship Troopers. The scene where ‘Pretty Boy’ does a runner and is chased on foot through a neighborhood of shanties by a relentless missile is particularly amusing and a comic highlight.

Aside from restoring the cross-country aspect of ‘The Racer’ and Corman’s Death Race 2000, the change of locale to South Africa also restores the idea of a subversive movement attempting to sabotage the race. Rather than being motivated by moral outrage or political agenda, the detractors here (being the local populace) are fighting against a First World corporate incursion into their lives. Although branded warlords and terrorists by race organizers, the local people do indeed have a valid reason to use any means necessary to force the Weyland Corporation off their land. And it is this aspect of social commentary which elevates Death Race 3 to something more than just the usual dumb-ass no-brainer action flick.

As the conclusion of this latest installment joins seamlessly with the beginning of the first; the series has now come full circle; attaining a natural closure of sorts and also finds itself at a fork in the road. With the integrity of the Anderson-produced cycle nicely maintained, the filmmakers are clearly faced with a choice to be made: whether to continue on as is from the ending of the first installment or (rather than risk driving it into the ground as happens with most franchises) – call it a day for this particular series – thus leaving its integrity intact. Or perhaps even a reimagining might be in order. As much as I generally dislike the idea of reboots – there is an opportunity here to capture the look and tone of Ib Melchior’s original story; the essence of which has not yet been fully explored. Considering Melchior’s story is perhaps more relevant today than it was fifty-seven years ago – it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to produce a more faithful adaptation which maintains the fanciful look and serious     tone of the source, while incorporating a healthy dose of social satire into the mix – essentially a version sitting somewhere between Roger Corman’s original Death Race 2000 and this third installment in Anderson’s gritty triptych.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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2 Comments
  1. 3? Was there a 2?? Lol. Not watched the remake but do love Death Race 2000!

  2. gregory moss permalink

    Absolutely! And who could have predicted Luke Goss would end up playing the role made famous by David Carradine?! And how could I forget to mention Sly Stallone in DR 2000 – “You want Frankenstein? – I’ll give you Frankenstein!” – RAT-A-TAT-A-TAT!!!

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