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Death Race (2008)
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 12/21/2008
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/24/2008
It's no great revelation that the remake trend angers many film fans. It most cases, the film being remade is one which was just fine to begin with and didn't need any re-working. However, something which may be worse than that are "re-imaginings". This occurs when filmmakers take the core idea of an older film and change it so much that we get a nearly different film. This "remake" resembles the original, but not by much. It could be argued that Death Race is a remake or even a re-imagining of Paul Bartel's 1975 film Death Race 2000, but other than the fact that there are cars and people die, the two movies share very little.
Death Race is set in the near future, where the American economy has collapsed and prisons have become privatized. Former racecar driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) now works in a steel mill which has just been shut down. Ames returns home to his wife and baby, but they are attacked and when Ames awakens, his wife is dead. He is tried and found guilty of murder and sentenced to Terminal Island, a private prison. This prison is the home of "Death Race", a reality TV show where prisoners race weapons-laden cars to the death. The event is organized Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), and she immediately invites Ames to join "Death Race", replacing audience favorite "Frankenstein", a driver who wears a mask (thus, the audience wouldn't know that it was someone new). He is told that if he wins just one race, he'll get his freedom. Ames agrees and is introduced to his crew, Coach (Ian McShane), Lists (Frederick Koehler), and Gunner (Jacob Vargas). He also meets his main competition, Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). Navigators for the races are brought in from the women's prison, and Case (Natalie Martinez) is assigned to Ames. As Ames works his way through the stages of "Death Race", he begins to learn that there few rules and he also begins to suspect that Hennessey has no intention of letting him win.
In his career, Writer/Director Paul W.S. Anderson has made two films based on video games -- Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. Based on what we get in Death Race, he should just go ahead and forego filmmaking and make a video game, as this movie is about as close to watching someone play a video game as possible. A great deal of the film is comprised of the three-stage "Death Race", and we watch the cars go round-and-round the track, attempting to destroy one-another. There is often very little story happening here, it's simply the car action. As if that doesn't sound enough like a video game, the race track in the film has power-ups. I'm not kidding. Just as in something like Mario Kart, there are areas in the track which the cars pass over to activate their weapons and defense mechanisms. There's a difference between "like a video game" and "I feel as if I'm watching a video game".
And then we have the film's story...or lack thereof. Again, this is hardly a remake of Death Race 2000. That movie was about a TV game show where drivers got points for running over pedestrians. While it did feature characters named Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe (played by David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, respectively), the film was a tongue-in-cheek black comedy. Death Race plays like Mad Max meetsThe Shawshank Redemption. While the movie apparently has an idea of how goofy it is, it also takes itself quite seriously, and things are pretty grim here. The movie has a definite meanstreak and the violence is plentiful. And yet, the story is incredibly linear. If any of the "plot twists" take you by surprise, then you weren't paying attention. And we also have lapses in logic, such as the navigators. If all three races take place on the exact same track, do the drivers really need a navigator?
In short, Death Race is a dumb movie. But, there's no denying the fact that the race scenes are very well-staged and look great. The movie asks the viewer to shut off their brain and simply enjoy the pretty pictures, and they are pretty. The vehicular carnage portrayed here is top-notch and gearheads will definitely get a kick out of the movie. If you are in the mood for a gore-filled race and don't care about characters or story, then Death Race is for you.
Death Race downshifts onto DVD courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only a hint of grain (and this may be due to the filming process). The image shows no defects from the source material. While it's clear, it is a bit flat and somewhat soft at times. The colors are purposely desaturated, but they look fine. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Obviously, to test this track, simply jump to one of the races. The stereo effects are good and we hear the cars on both sides of the screen. Likewise, we hear them whipping by as the sound moves from the front to the rear speakers. These surround effects are nearly constant and quite good. The subwoofer effects are good as well, and the explosions pack a wallop.
The Death Race DVD contains only a few extras. The unrated version features an AUDIO COMMENTARY with Director Paul W.S. Anderson and Producer Jeremy Bolt. This is a competent track, as the two old friends discuss the making of the film. They talk about the story, the locations, and the stunts. They also comment on the actors, and describe how they prepared for their roles. "Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race" (20 minutes) is a making-of featurette which contains a nice amount of behind-the-scenes footage. Over half of the piece is taken up by a look at the cast and characters (we get a description of Statham's diet and exercise regime). The locations, sets, and staging of the races is also profiled. There is concept art of the cars and scenes of them being built. "Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts" (8 minutes) takes us on-set to see how the cars were built and how the racing action was staged. This shows how green-screen work was combined with stunt driving -- which was then combined with explosions and gunfire.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has also brought Death Race toBlu-ray Disc. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs an at average of 25 Mbps. The image looks very good, as it's quite sharp and clear, although a mild hint of grain is visible in some shots. There are no defects from the source material. The image has a very nice depth and it's quite detailed, allowing us to see every scratch on the cars. The image doesn't has the softness seen on the DVD and the colors are very good. The Disc offers a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.4 Mbps. This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This is a great track which really brings the film to life. The stereo, surround, and subwoofer effects are nearly constant and the race scenes are a cacophony of sounds. We get race sounds from all speakers and the viewer truly feels immersed in the action. This would make a nice audio demo disc.
Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long