Death Race
Universal // Unrated // $39.98 // December 21, 2008
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 18, 2008
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Graphical Version
C'mon, the
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flick's called Death Race, and the Big Bad at one point is an eighteen-wheeler oil tanker with flamethrowers and a frickin' tank stapled on the back. It's as if someone slipped The Road Warrior a fistful of roofies, shoved it in a back closet with The Transporter and 2 Fast 2 Furious, and this is what squirted out nine months later.

...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
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Rain Man-style stats geek, a grizzled old-timer (Ian McShane), and a foxy navigator from the women's prison down the road (Natalie Martinez). Oh, and Jensen gets to carry over Frankenstein's winning streak, so one more victory scores him a Get Outta Jail Free card. It's not gonna be that easy, though: damn near everyone in the prison is gunning for Jensen on and off the track, and with Frankenstein pulling in so many tens of millions of eyeballs, is the frosty warden gonna let her meal ticket just stroll out the door? Wouldn't be much of an action flick if she would, right?

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.

Death Race
Oh, and Tyrese is in it too.
is just a fast moving exploitation flick, from the booty-shaking bass, slow-motion, and leering pans to the T&A whenever a chick mugs in front of the camera to pretty much everything on-screen blowing up from twelve different angles. There's pretty much no characterization, and the script chucks out any meandering subplots, so the whole thing just screams along for 110 minutes. That's longer than a movie like this really needs to be, yeah, but it blazes along so quickly that the runtime feels just a fraction of that. There's nothing even remotely original about the story -- y'know, wronged, vengeful hero, one-note badniks, obligatory romance, lots and lots of megaton explosions -- but I think this is exactly the movie Anderson set out to make. I mean, there's no point in trying to make too much sense of it, like why Hennessey issues an order to kill off damn near every driver in the race by the time stage two lurches to a close, running the risk of not having anyone left to square off in round three. There's a "...the hell?" speech where she awkwardly tries to seduce Jensen into staying on-board in the mask too. Shrug it off as "dumb" and move on. The quick-cutting is so spastic during the races -- especially that opening one -- that it almost seems like a if it's parodying the hyperkinetic editing in action flicks by cutting so quickly that the imagery on-screen is a near-total blur. Whatever. It kind of goes without saying that a flick with a title like Death Race isn't going to top any critics' year-end lists or anything. It's just a big, loud, gloriously dumb action flick that's fat-packed with over-the-top vehicular slaughter. Sometimes that's good enough. Recommended.

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.

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this is a movie with 240 billion shells being spat around from every direction, overcranked cars screaming by at 250 mph, rocket launchers spewing out pint-sized kinda goes without saying that Death Race is packing a hyperaggressive 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The low-end is devastating: the thumping techno-inflected score peels the paint clean off the walls, there's the throaty growl of these souped-up engines, the meaty slug in the gut punctuating all the punches and kicks, and...well, all the vehicular chaos, natch.

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.
  • Create Your Own Race (HD): The concept's pretty clever, at least: this feature belts out seven different angles from the second stage of Death Race, and users can cut together their own versions and share 'em online. The drag is that at least on my PS3, there's a pretty long stutter between each cut, making it borderline-unwatchable. The clunkiness of these edits kills the momentum of a breakneck race, and if it's not seamless, what's the point?

  • Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race (20 min.; HD): The first half or so of Death Race's standard issue making-of featurette is kind of a waste, bogged down by bland casting notes and a bunch of the cast and crew keeping a straight face while chatting about Death Race striving for realism. It gets better once the second half rolls around, though, touching on the shoot in an abandoned train factory in Montréal, piecing the cars together, and a small army of mechanics practically working as a pit crew during the shoot.

  • Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts (8 min.; HD): "Behind the Wheel" delves into what it takes to hammer out a movie this violent -- a fleet of cars blowing up, flipping around a couple hundred feet in the air, and being peppered by unrelenting barrages of machine gun fire -- while resorting to CGI as sparingly as possible.
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  • U-Control: Universal's trademark interactivity serves up two features that run throughout the movie. First up is "Tech Specs", which belts out profiles for each driver, tallies up their wins and kills, rattles off the nuts-and-bolts of each car, and displays an up-to-date leaderboard.

    Even though the featurettes on this disc are pretty lightweight, an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage was shot, and it's spat out in a picture-in-picture window for almost the entire flick. It touches on pretty much everything: fight choreography, the elaborate stuntwork, shooting in a working steel mill, the design of the tattoos splattered across Statham's body, the actor's punishing diet and exercise regime, production and costume design, the homebrew camera rigs, all of the heavy artillery that had to be lugged across the border... It also serves up a look at conceptual art, raw effects plates, previs footage, an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage, and scores of interviews. This is one of the best picture-in-picture features I've seen, to the point that there's really no need to sift through any of the other extras on this disc.

  • Audio Commentary: Director Paul W.S. Anderson piles into the recording booth with producer Jeremy Bolt for Death Race's audio commentary, and it's a solid track, even if the U-Control does leave it kind of inessential. Anderson delves much more in-depth about his futuristic, astronomically expensive concept he pitched for the movie fourteen years ago, and he also touches on the real-life Terminal Island and the backstory of his fictional version from earlier drafts. The cars and the race are obviously lavished with most of the attention, from selecting relatable cars viewers could probably spot on the street (minus, y'know, the armor plating and Ol' Painless-style cannons) to the logistics of hammering out these elaborate chases. A few other scattered highlights include the actors directing the flunkies in their gangs themselves, carving out the movie's four (!) badniks, the average length of an edit clocking in around one second, Joan Allen's "shit on the sidewalk" startling the crew so much that the first take fell out of focus, and why an epilogue was tacked on after the original ending.

  • Digital Copy: A digital copy of Death Race is on a second disc if you want to leer at Natalie Martinez on your iPhone or whatever.

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.

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