It's not often that a film franchise that began in theaters finds greater life in the straight-to-DVD market, but Death Race is one of those rare success stories. The reasons why are pretty simple. Paul W.S. Anderson gave us the first Death Race in 2008, with Jason Statham starring as the mysterious masked driver known as Frankenstein, and it was a modest-sized hit. But free from the expectations and the larger budget theatrical efforts demand, Anderson has been able to cut loose with the boobs, the gore, and the cheesy acting to appeal to fans of fun mindless junk. Fortunately, I'm such a fan, and found Death Race 3: Inferno to suit me just fine.
There's always been a Frankenstein, and there will always be a Frankenstein. That seems to be the mantra that fuels these hard-drivin' flicks, which continue to follow the lineage of the prison inmate-turned ace Death Race driver. Anderson and franchise scribe Tony Giglio deserve props for sticking to a fairly tight sense of continuity when they easily could've ignored it. Picking up where the last one left off, Weyland (Ving Rhames) has just seen his precious Death Race tourney stolen out from under him in a hostile takeover. Devious new owner Niles York (Dougray Scott) has plans of taking the races out of Terminal Island prison and into the deserts of South Africa before going global.
The political maneuverings are mostly background noise to the real main event, which is of course the origin of Frankenstein and the plight of the man under the mask, Luke (Luke Goss). With only victory separating him from total freedom, Luke is understandably pissed off when York takes over and upends the original deal. Luke's crew, consisting of analytical Lists (Fred Koehler), mechanic and weapons dude Goldberg (Danny Trejo), and busty navigator Katrina (Tanit Phoenix), still think he's dead but keep helping who they think is a new guy behind the wheel.
His charade doesn't last long, and in-between all the exploding cars and splattering bodies there's a considerable amount of tension amongst the group, pissed that Luke deceived them. Most upset is his ex-gal Katrina, and he quickly learns it's not wise to be on his navigator's sh*t list when she beats up a dozen other gals in a hoochie-mama royal rumble.
Directed by the returning Roel Reine, the film revels in its exploitation roots, filling each scene with scantily clad ladies, car chases, and gasoline explosions. Without the crutch of costly computer effects, it's a welcome benefit to see real Mad Max-style vehicles getting blown to smithereens. Reine proves better at staging the twisted metal carnage than he does during the human-on-human battles, which are more prominent this time around. Goss also seems to have lost some of the charisma that made the departure of Statham less of an issue.
Watching Death Race 3: Inferno is a lot like a casual viewer taking in the Indianapolis 500. Watching the cars go around is ok, but what puts butts in seats is the threat of wanton destruction, and there's plenty of it here. The ending twists into a pretzel to come up with a half-reasonable way to keep the franchise going, and frankly it's so ludicrous that it kind of works. Not totally, but anything that keeps the testosterone-powered flicks from hitting the finish line is a good thing.