In an unusual but not surprising move, CBS/Paramount has opted to release a single (if feature-length) episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to Blu-ray. The reason is obvious: "Grave Danger" was directed by Quentin Tarantino, who's also credited with the story, while the teleplay is credited to Naren Shankar, Anthony E. Zuiker, and Carol Mendelsohn.
The benefits of such a release appear mixed at best. Although it provides easy access for Tarantino completists, "Grave Danger" is much more like an episode of CSI than a Tarantino movie, and while its story is reasonably self-contained it also demands some familiarity with its continuing characters and their relationship to one another to fully appreciate it. For CSI fans, the appearance of Grave Danger also seems to support the notion that CBS/Paramount has pretty much given up, at least for now, the viability of season sets on Blu-ray. CSI's first season was released to Blu in May 2009, followed in September by what was then the most current season, season nine. Those must not have sold up to expectations, because no further Blu-ray releases followed, not even seasons ten or eleven, which one assumes would be the most saleable.
On its own terms, Grave Danger is neither fish nor fowl, lacking in most ways Tarantino's signature style, while as a CSI episode, it's good but not great. Partly this is because the plot is a little different, a race against the clock by the CSI team to save one of its own. The story doesn't really play to CSI's strengths, though the character interaction is rather interesting. And, while undeniably suspenseful, the story is unusually repellant, its script in some ways anticipating the "torture porn" genre that officially began with Hostel in 2006 (though some would trace back its roots to 2004's Saw).
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - Grave Danger is a dual-format set, with both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the same episode. Video and audio are excellent, and it comes with an entertaining featurette, made at the time, about Taratino's involvement.
Grave Danger apparently began as a typical 40-something-minute episode, but during production it was expanded into a two-parter to accommodate Tarantino's more leisurely pacing (three minutes of screen time per page, instead of the normal one page = one minute of screen time). Nevertheless, it was first broadcast in two parts on the same evening, May 19, 2005, as CSI's fifth season finale.
The story is relatively simple. Las Vegas CSI Nick Stokes (George Eads) is investigating the strange appearance of disembodied intestines found in an alley parking lot when suddenly he's rendered unconscious and kidnapped by an unseen assailant.
The kidnapper demands $1 million or Nick dies. Nick, meanwhile, has been buried alive in a Plexiglas coffin, along with a loaded handgun, glow sticks, a mini-cassette player and a tape of the mystery kidnapper's taunts. Further, the technically savvy kidnapper has provided Nick with about 12 hours worth of fresh air (pumped in from above ground), and there's a video feed linking a miniaturized camera inside the coffin, looking down on Nick's face in a tight close-up, directly to the CSI lab.
Night shift supervisor and forensic entomologist Dr. Gil Grissom (star William Petersen), Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan), Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox), and LVPD Capt. Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) all spring into action to save their friend.
Tarantino is a huge fan of CSI and for that reason accepted the producers' invitation to helm this episode. He and they agreed that he would direct it pretty much in the show's "house style" and that the teleplay would be written by others, partly to avoid turning this into a Tarantino movie populated by the cast of CSI. Clearly, however, he had a hand in several scattered scenes, mostly in the expanded material. During one lunch break, for instance, Tarantino hastily wrote a locker room scene for Nick and Warrick that doesn't really fit with anything else, but undeniably bears his stamp.
Several guest stars were clearly cast by Tarantino as well. Andrew Prine and Lois Chiles are good choices to play Nick's distraught parents, and John Saxon has a good if brief role before he makes a spectacular exit. But Tony Curtis and Frank Gorshin, playing themselves, look old and sickly, and their cameos are singularly superfluous. (Gorshin in fact died two days before the episode aired. The show was dedicated to his memory, though that dedication is missing here.)*
The 85-minute show is less about the CSI team analyzing evidence than their fretting over Nick's possibly imminent demise, and poor Nick grappling with what may be his last moments on earth. Ultimately, the episode goes way overboard in this regard, subjecting him and the audience to one grim step closer to agonizing death after another. In the featurette, both Tarantino and Eads admit they certainly wouldn't have lasted more than an hour or two in that coffin before giving up and shooting themselves. Pushed way beyond all reasonable expectations of human endurance, these scenes are hard to watch and hardly pleasurable or satisfying, well done though they may be.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Super 35, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation looks great on Blu-ray. This does not look like a nearly seven-year-old TV show but a brand-new, big-budget movie. Audio is likewise impressive, with a 5.1 Dolby Digital and Spanish stereo tracks, along with subtitle options in those languages.
Included is a nearly 20-minute featurette about this episode, with much behind-the-scenes footage of Tarantino and the CSI unit at work. Clearly, a big part of Tarantino's success in the business is his great and informed appreciation of his casts and crews, his encyclopedic awareness of their past work, which clearly flatters and inspires them. The comments on what was an incredibly busy but professionally satisfying experience is unusually enlightening.
The release of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - Grave Danger is welcome though CSI fans like this reviewer would much rather see full season sets rather than cherry-picked episodes. Still, for what it is, Grave Danger is Recommended.
* Also not long before Gorshin's death, my pal Ted Newsom and I were having lunch at a Silver Lake (Los Angeles) eatery called Astro Burger when in walked Frank Gorshin. Filmmaker Ted had wanted to hire him for a job, but became convinced the man we saw was not Gorshin, despite my insistence that it was. "This guy's head is shaped like a bullet!" Ted countered. A few days later Ted was back at Astro Burger and asked a waitress, "Do you remember a gentleman sitting over there Sunday about 11 o'clock?" Her reply: "You mean Frank Gorshin?"
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