...and I could pretty much stop this review right there. Death Race got the memo that it's loud, dumb, cacklingly over-the-top sensory overload -- although that kinda goes without saying with Paul No-The-Other-One W.S. Anderson leaning back in the director's chair -- and it really doesn't seem to mind.
Death Race isn't exactly top-heavy with plot, but the story goes something like this. It's the future! America's economy lies in tattered shreds. To distract the huddled masses from how wretched their lives really are -- and to pull a profit for the sprawling megacorporations that run the overflowing penal system on these shores -- a few select convicts are dragged out to fight to the death on pay-per-view. The whole gladiatorial thing got stale pretty quickly, so Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) upped the stakes. She opened up an oversized auto shop on Terminal Island Penitentiary, and...well, the movie's called "Death Race", so you get the idea. These cars are armor-plated and armed to the teeth. The first one across the finish line wins, and five victories equals a ticket out the door. Y'know, freedom! Um, but it being a race of the death-ish variety, even just limping to the finish line in last place is a pretty mean feat. But to do it first...? And five times...?
Frankenstein (voiced by David Carradine...!) almost pulled it off, but with four victories under his belt and his fifth just a quarter-mile away...boom. Frankie was a hideously deformed schlub behind a mask, though, so Hennessey can keep this fan favorite kinda-sorta-alive by slapping that metal mask over someone else's noggin. Who's the lucky guy? That'd be Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a one-time racing star who was tossed in the pokey and shoved out of the circuit, although he's clawing his way towards some sort of happiness now that he's married and has an adorable baby girl bobbing away in a crib in the other room. 'Course, you can't really drive a car for a prison race if you're not actually in prison, but that nagging little detail is knocked out pretty quickly: Jensen's framed for the grisly murder of his wife, his tyke is shipped off, and his heavily tattooed ass is dragged to Terminal Island. Being blackmailed into taking the place of a dead driver doesn't sound all that bad, though. Jensen has a pretty solid pit crew behind him, including a
Death Race got the memo that it's a guilty pleasure and rolls with it, so...yeah. Rocket launchers. Spikes. Tank turrets. Armor plating. Flamethrowers. Napalm. Ejection seats. Drills carving through the side of a car and into some navigator's gut Ben Hur style. Head-liquefying road kill. More spent shells spilling out of machine guns than in every war over the past century combined. A three time Academy Award nominee like Joan Allen snarling, "okay, cocksucker: fuck with me and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk!" The only thing Death Race really has in common with the original is that they're both batshit psychotic. Don't even think of it as a remake: this is pretty much Twisted Metal: The Motion Picture. I mean, Paul W.S. Anderson has Mortal Kombat and three Resident Evil flicks under his belt, but Death Race plays more like a video game than the four of 'em combined. The cars have power ups, fer cryin' out loud! Yeah, these souped-up rigs are armed to the teeth, but they can't unleash any of that firepower without rolling over a sword-shaped icon on the blacktop. Their defensive gear -- smoke bombs, oil slicks...that sort of thing -- only kicks in after rolling over a shield icon. All that's missing are a wireless controller and a health bar in the corner.
Oh, and this Blu-ray disc serves up two versions of the movie: the theatrical release and the unrated cut. Some of the differences include additional snippets of dialogue, Case whacking a jammed gatling gun with a wrench while tearing around at a hundred-somethin' mph, an off-screen beatdown when Jensen first strolls into prison, and another brawl that's extended a bit. In his audio commentary, Anderson talks it up not as a director's cut so much as deleted scenes being spliced back in just for fun.
Universal's day-and-date titles seem to be impressing me more than what any other studio is churning out these days, and Death Race hovers somewhere up there with the studio's best. The scope image is crisp overall and ridiculously detailed, bolstered by deep, punchy blacks and rock-solid contrast. I couldn't spot any compression artifacts, smudging from digital noise reduction, or edge haloes, but...y'know, the most difficult shots to encode whiz by at a fraction of a second anyway, so who knows...? The flick's visuals are grim and gritty rather than the usual peering-out-of-a-window demo material. Pretty much all of the color is drained away, leaving Death Race looking gloomy and overcast aside from those streaks of fiery reds and oranges. The thin veil of film grain sticks to that same aesthetic too, and the bitrate is kept high enough that the compression never chokes on that gritty texture. This is a really slick looking Blu-ray disc, and I don't have any gripes to spout out this time around.
Death Race careens onto Blu-ray in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and has been encoded with AVC.
Death Race screams out to be experienced in 5.1 -- it'd be an almost unrecognizably different flick if its sound design were crammed into the lightweight speakers built into your TV. The surrounds are pretty much unrelenting, and with so many effects ping-ponging from one speaker to another, the races feel that much more immersive. There's also a really strong sense of ambiance in a prison on the verge of spilling over. Even though Death Race's sound design does stick to that Motorhead mantra of everything being louder than everything else -- hell, the only flick this year in its same league is The Incredible Hulk -- somehow all of these elements still sound clean, clear, and flawlessly balanced in the mix. I'll admit to being pretty stingy with my star ratings, so when I throw out a perfect score at Death Race's lossless soundtrack, I mean it.
Lossy DTS 5.1 tracks are also served up in Spanish and French. English (SDH), Spanish, and French subtitle streams round out the audio options.
Death Race gives the handful of extras from the DVD a high-definition spit-'n-polish and piles on a slew of Blu-ray-exclusive bells and whistles while it's at it.
The Final Word
See? This is the trashy drive-in flick Death Proof probably should've been.
I'm not going to sit here and pretend that Death Race is some kind of...y'know, artistic triumph or whatever: it's a big, loud, dumb, hypercaffeinated action flick with a bunch of cars packing rocket launchers and oversized machine guns blowing the holy hell out of each other for a couple hours straight. Lug your brain over to the shelf next to that big stack of Criterion Blu-ray discs that just came out, crank up the receiver, and settle in for some mindless, cacklingly over-the-top fun. Sure, it's about as guilty a pleasure as they come, but still... Recommended.