DEATH RACE 3 is of course the sequel to the DTV prequel to Paul W.S. Anderson’s theatrical sort-of remake of Paul Bartel and Roger Corman’s DEATH RACE 2000. To gage my response you will need to see my scorecard: I consider DEATH RACE 2000 a classic, DEATH RACE a surprisingly solid b-movie, DEATH RACE 2 a pretty enjoyable DTV prequel to that type of movie. And part 3 rates about the same as part 2.
It’s all the same people: Luke Goss (BLADE II, HELLBOY 2) returns as the pre-Statham Frankenstein, masked hero of the newly invented car racing to-the-death prison circuit. Tanit Phoenix is still his sexy girl navigator, Danny Trejo is still his mechanic, Ving Rhames still Weyland, the warden/CEO of Terminal Island, and from the movie we have Fred Koehler as the somewhat autistic Lists and Robin “Liu Kang” Shou in his traditional P.W.S. Anderson supporting player role as fellow racer 14K. Part 2’s director Roel Reine (of PISTOL WHIPPED and THE MARINE 2 fame) and writer Tony Giglio (story by Anderson) also return.
So what changes? Well, now that Weyland has invented Death Racing and turned it into a pay-per-view empire the even-greedier people want in on the action. Miles York (Dougray Scott) and his York Global Industries buy out Weyland and a bunch of prisons around the world so they can franchise the sport. For a minute it seems like they’re gonna turn part 2’s villain into a victim, like some lovable mom and pop business is being bought out by The Man, but they don’t quite go that far.
York’s big plan is to ship Frankenstein and his team to a prison in Cape Town, South Africa to compete in a desert race. This plays like a switch in location, but of course part 2 was already filmed in Cape Town. So it’s like if Jackie Chan’s character from RUMBLE IN THE BRONX left New York to visit an uncle in Vancouver.
I pretty much forgot everything that happened in part 2 until part 3 spent its first 20 minutes trying to undo all of it. That one seemed to tell the origin of the David-Carradine-voiced Frankenstein Statham replaced in DEATH RACE. Goss’s character Carl “Luke” Lucas started as a racer, got all burned up like Darkman, wore the mask, nobody knew he was alive or that he was Frankenstein. Everything set up to lead right into DEATH RACE.
Except then they decided they wanted more movies, so they changed everything back. In this one his face is only partly burnt (pretty good makeup job, actually) and they explain that Weyland “fixed” his monster face because the burns got infected and he would’ve died. Then his mask gets knocked off in front of his friends and various South African prisoners, so it’s not a secret identity anymore and everybody gets mad at him for making them think he was dead. It’s pretty ridiculous to have to undo everything they did in the last one, but it’s also kinda cool the way it sets up a possibility that this might not actually be the same Frankenstein Statham replaces, there could be others in between.
As much of an asshole as Weyland was, York is worse. The fans know that Frankenstein will be freed if he wins one more race, but he doesn’t intend to honor that. Instead he tells him to lose the race or be killed and replaced behind the mask. There’s no escaping, either, because the racers all have trackers implanted in their necks and if they go off course they’ll be blown up by missiles. Of course this leads to most of the deaths in the movie (maybe the best being the guy who makes a run for it on foot in a South African township).
There are some new wrinkles to the sport to keep both the fictional PPV audience and the actual DTV audience interested. The new navigators are chosen in a spin-off competition show called Navigator Wars, where all these female convicts who look like models (including “identical twin serial killers”) have a battle royale to the death. Like in Death Race there are hotspots they can activate to get weapons like battle axes and stuff. Luckily Frankenstein’s girl Katrina Banks gets the blowtorch.
They also finally get some of the DEATH RACE 2000 spirit going by involving some civilian pedestrians in the action. They still don’t get points for running people over, but there are warlords that shoot at them for no reason and, my favorite, mobs of protesters with signs saying “DEATH RACE GO HOME!” and stuff like that. They’re so opposed to this violent sport that when Nero (Eugen Khumbanyiwa) and his navigator crash, they pull him out of the wreckage, beat him to death and drag his corpse through the streets.
The narrator of the Death Race broadcasts is back too. He explains some of the action and gives warnings like “Action not to be duplicated.” My favorite is “Any rebroadcast or unauthorized use is punishable by death, or life in prison if under the age of 15.”
I can’t claim the action is great, and when there’s some fighting in the prison it’s lots of quick edits, disappointing coming from the director of THE MARINE 2 which had some good action and particularly a great long take fight sequence. On the other hand there’s alot of fun stuff because in the fine tradition of the series it’s a movie full of cars flipping, crashing and exploding, and I didn’t notice much of it being digital. One stand out stunt is a slo-mo shot of a car driving off a cliff with two passengers jumping out (alot like the one in FAST FIVE, actually, but give these guys credit for doing it on a DTV budget).
And like all good DTV there are a bunch of funny parts and interesting touches. A death racer with a blowtorch encounters some locals having a barbecue (it fits the tone better than the jetpack/hamburger scene in MINORITY REPORT). Trejo’s character has a real good looking groupie (Yrsa Daley-Ward I think?) who, you know, sharpens his machete or whatever. There’s a reference to the singer Elliot Smith, which is weird, but it’s on a list of “famous stabbing victims”. History’s first female death racer Olga Braun gets a good scene or two. And the movie benefits greatly from a big ending twist where everything comes together in a partly expected, partly clever, mostly ludicrous way. It left me immediately hoping they would do a part 4 so we could see what the hell they do with that.
Movie’s biggest sin: one of the racers yells “Yippee Ki-Yay Motherfucker!” I don’t know why. Maybe to prove that it’s the unrated version?
This is a dumb movie but I think there is something mildy progressive in it: it depicts black South Africans as regular people, not just solemn characters in an apartheid drama. I’m sure there are other examples of this but off the top of my head I can’t think of a Hollywood movie that does it. Here we have a sexy TV producer/villainess (Hlubi Mboya), prison guards, nurses, plus various racers and civilian extras. Okay, most of them are bad guys, but not all of them, like the white South Africans.
I’m not saying this is next level DTV shit, but not too many years ago it would’ve seemed like one of the best of its type. It’s more like a great syndicated action show than a great movie, but I’d keep watching these. The above-averageness gauntlet has been thrown down. Your move, SCORPION KING prequel sequels
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.