21 hours is the amount of time it takes to fly from Los Angeles to Cape Town, South Africa. If a healthy amount of that time is not spent sleeping – even under the duress of sleeping pills and/or a glass of wine or two – you will be in trouble. Especially if the first thing you have to do when you land is not eat, not rest, but drive more or less directly out to a quarry to watch futuristic vehicles race underneath the hot sun.
Death Race 2 came as a nice surprise: while the first (the remake, that is) carried the imprint of Paul W.S. Anderson’s dubious creativity, its follow-up seemed borne of a pure and unfettered addiction to everything that action fans crave – fast cars, flying fists, explosions, and exposed female flesh. Not only did Luke Goss prove to be a more than worthy replacement for Jason Statham, but he found a game collaborator in director Roel Reine, who seemed inspired to create something that both capitalized on the success of its predecessor and sped off in its own, unexpected but thankfully not completely unfamiliar territory.
Back for Death Race 3 was Goss, his pit crew, played by Danny Trejo and Fred Koehler; Tanit Phoenix, who played Frankenstein’s lady love – or lust at the very least; Robin Shou, playing Frankenstein’s respected adversary 14K; and Ving Rhames, whose basso profundo delivery provided his executive/CEO character with precisely the sort of gravitas needed to pull the strings on what by the third film has become a worldwide phenomenon. Thankfully, the cast’s disposition was decidedly more hospitable than that of the landscape around them, and they took pity on yours truly after learning I was effectively a member of the walking dead.
But a day and a half of interviews later, and with some small amount of sleep at long last under my belt, I’d become a different sort of walking dead: me and two other male journalists were enlisted as extras, playing inmates at the unforgiving prison where Frankenstein, his companions and his competitors are held when they’re not kicking up dust in tricked-out dune buggies and race cars. Given appropriately dirtied clothing and covered in a fine layer of filth, the three of us soon found ourselves grumbling and cheering as Phoenix and her fellow navigators battled for the honor of joining male companions in the vehicles.
Admittedly, I’m no actor, and mostly stayed back in the cages where we huddled between takes – which is also why you won’t see me in the finished film. But the experience of pretending to raucously scream and shout as 20 scantily clad women beat the tar out of one another was something I’d never experienced, and likely won’t again, and am grateful I joined my fellow journalists for. That said, I mostly felt sorry for the female members of our group, who were unable to join in on the fun, although they did get to watch the action from the sidelines.
Despite all of the fun we had, and the excitement we were shown on set, the visit was a powerful reminder that people work incredibly hard on every movie. This isn’t just a matter of not setting out to make a bad one, it’s the prospect of taking something seriously, even when it involves fake prisons and suped-up rides and really, really attractive women, and making something truly good. Goss, whom we spoke to on multiple occasions, takes his character, and his emotional challenges seriously – which, quite frankly, is precisely why audiences ultimately embrace these films, even if their life begins on DVD. Though there is a sense of fun in the end result, the sincerity and earnestness that goes into putting all of the pieces together is what keeps audiences caring, and coming back for more.
But this isn’t a campaign for the integrity of Death Race, or any other film, for that matter. And the visit was what it was – an opportunity to speak with the cast and crew, and get inside the process of putting together an adventure that is quite frankly otherwise easily dismissed because it’s being released direct to DVD and Blu-ray.
Looking at the finished film, what they made is more or less exactly what they promised – namely, a raucous thrill ride that creates palpable stakes and then pays them off in inventive, exciting, and yes, occasionally silly ways. All of which means the experience of watching the movie pretty much conjures the same feelings as visiting the set: you might not believe your eyes, and you might even feel like you’re being treated like one of the inmates struggling to survive, but it will keep you awake, alert and engaged long after you thought you would have given up.