British billionaire Niles York (Dougray Scott) bullies his way to a hostile takeover of Weyland Industries. His goal is to franchise Death Race, taking it global while increasing the number of locations and frequency of races. He has purchased crumbling prisons around the world and hopes to stage a race every 2 weeks.
The first such race takes place in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa. The famous racer known as Frankenstein (Luke Goss, who took over for Jason Statham in part 2) is racing for his freedom, having won 4 consecutive races and being promised his release after the fifth. His team has been reassembled to support his cause, including Goldberg (Danny Trejo) and Katrina (Tanit Phoenix, lovely but a lousy actress).
Frankenstein will spend 3 days racing through the Kalahari against 9 fellow criminals, including the first female racer. The smarmy and devious York will do his best to prevent him from winning, but the famous driver has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Death Race 3 falls short by playing it way too safe, not taking full advantage of its premise or the new location. It lacks imagination. There are too many explosions to count (along with frantic editing and copious slow-motion) and most people perish in fiery crashes that have a perfunctory feel. The majority of the kills have little creativity.
One particular scene highlights the movie’s problems. Before the first stage of the race begins, there is a pre-Death Race event to pick the navigators. It features 16 beautiful women, including an IRA terrorist and twin Swedish serial killers, fighting to the death for 10 spots. But they all look the same, it’s nearly impossible to make out who is fighting whom, and it’s over almost before it really starts. An opportunity wasted.
There’s also way too much melodrama, most of it involving the budding relationship between Frankenstein and Katrina. It is unnecessary padding and doesn’t belong in a movie like this.
Despite all of its problems, there is some fun to be had. The cast (outside of Phoenix) is good. Trejo in particular appears to be enjoying himself and gets some memorable and amusing quips. There’s infrequent but solid gore, particularly when a missile makes waste of a contestant attempting to escape. And every once in a while it displays a biting wit, such as when a voiceover notes that racing like this should not be attempted at home and unauthorized piracy of the event is “punishable by death, or life imprisonment if under age 15.”
The random wit and gore end up being the exception to the rule though. Death Race 3 promises excess, but fails to deliver it. If part 4 ever rolls around, here’s hoping for fewer explosions and more gleeful and nasty depravity.