The rules are simple: Drive or Die.
After successfully winning four races during and after the course of Death Race 2, Carl Lucas aka Frankenstein (Luke Goss) only has one more race to win and will gain - along with the rest of his crew - a full pardon from Terminal Island Penetentiary. Unfortunately for Lucas, the Death Race franchise has been bought out from under Weyland's (Ving Rhames) watch by new owner Niles York (Dougray Scott), who does not intend to honour the previous bargain. Instead, the racers are shipped off to a new desert race track in South Africa. Will Lucas live long enough to gain his freedom from the new tyrannic race-master?
I was a big fan of the first film with Jason Statham and very much enjoyed the direct-to-video prequel from 2010. I stated back then that while the script had some niggling continuity errors, the CAR-nage more than made up for it. Death Race 3: Inferno ramps up the CAR-nage (okay, okay…) with even bigger explosions and crashes than it's predecessor, and much more interesting and varied scenery. Setting the race in South African sand dunes and slum towns was a good idea, I thought, and sees the racers combat in far more unpredictable terrain than a track in a prison complex. Indeed some of the shots of the dunes, valleys and towns are quite attractive (There's certainly a lot of red sand around that place).
Where the film falls down is the characterisation - or complete lack of it. There is no growth of any of the (returning) characters: Danny Trejo's Goldberg, Fred Koehler's Lists, Taint Phoenix's Katrina and Carl "Luke" Lucas plod their way through the film not really bringing anything new or interesting to the table, outside a very small handful of light-hearted additions. Goldberg for instance has a very small fling with a nurse after being injured in the race. An attempt is made to introduce jealousy to the Katrina character but you really just don't care that much. We meet a handful of new characters, principally the new drivers (with names like Razor, Nero, Olga, Fury, etc), but none are that interesting - in fact the one called Psycho was really getting on my nerves by the end of it with his bad lines. Some of the more interesting exchanges involve the uncredited African locals, who get in on the race as well bringing their own cars and machine guns in to the mix, and there's even some minor humour when the race intrudes into the peoplehomes (literally).
Ving Rhames literally phones in his performance as Weyland (half of his scenes are on a car phone). He is really only here to hand over the reigns to new boss York, which is a shame. York himself is the guy you love to hate; the only one in the film you could have any emotional connection with, albeit a negative one. He double-crosses, violently outbursts at his staff - poor secretary Prudence (Roxane Hayward) cops the brunt of it - and holds a massive grudge again Lucas that will see him try to sabotage his own Death Race. Another returning character is competing driver 14K (Robin Shou) who literally spends his whole time yelling in a Chinese dialect to his co-driver and not much else (that lack of character development problem again).
There also seems to be far more shaky-cam in this one and far, FAR too much ultra-zoomed-in shots. When the cars are flying over sand dunes or crashing through shanty towns, the picture is great. When the camera focuses on the drivers we can see up their nose. And in the fight sequences we see a lot of elbows and feet as the camera jerks around. It's not the worst example of MTV-style film making I've seen (see the early/mid-2000's Seagal flicks for that) but it was off-putting.
So the race mayhem itself is still as good as ever, and the scenery is far more interesting than before, but the lack of empathy or even interest I had for the characters really brought this one down. There's no chatter between the drivers and co-drivers of any real purpose, and between matches in the pit nothing much goes on. I will say that the final third does bring some "Aaaaaaah!" moments that rectify this to a fairly substantial degree, but the writers and director could have spiced up the dialogue for the rest of the film. Recommended of course for the action, but I think I will find myself re-watching part two more than part three.
The vehicular mayhem is pretty epic, but the sixteen year old boy inside me couldn't get past the glorious opening girl-fight sequence. To pick the ten winning co-pilots, all the girls are thrown into a ring to fight to the death. Similar to the sequence in the previous Death Race prequel, the contestants in skimpy outfits that promote breast size unlock weapons and kill each other in over-the-top fashion until only ten combatants remain. I very much enjoyed the flame thrower. I also quite appreciated the brief, slow-mo shower sequence with Katrina, baring all her assets. Ahem.
The Australian blu-ray, presented in excellent quality 1.78:1 widescreen with a thundering DTS soundtrack.