Death Machine (UK - DVD R1)
Gabe struggles to find the off switch while Brad Dourif's monster eats him
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CHAANK Armaments is experimenting with the ultimate fighting human/machine. So far, the Hardman project has been unreliable and has a number of innocents laying dead in its wake. The genius behind this project is a child like hacker named Jack Dante (Brad Dourif). When Jack is fired for killing a few corporate officers, he unleashes his Death Machine against his oppressors.
Three years before he reinvigorated the comic book and kung fu genres for US audiences (say what you will about the final product, Blade pre-dated The Matrix and X-Men), and six years before big bad Sean Connery chased him out of the editing room (I say League of Extraordinary Gentlemen could've been decent), Stephen Norrington made a little picture called Death Machine. The years before that saw the Englishman working behind the scenes in make-up and special effects on many a major Hollywood production.
Death Machine's plot is deceptively simple, and pretty darn unoriginal, but the final product greatly exceeded my synopsis related expectations. The film is a quirky work of visual ingenuity. It's not that the story is worthless, or even particularly bad, but it's entirely secondary to Norrington's feast for the eyes. The character names give it all away; John Carpenter, Scott Ridley, and most telling of all, Sam Raimi. The only name missing from the list is James Cameron, who's influence makes great sense considering the film's basic plot (very Terminator meets Aliens), and the fact that Norrington worked for Cameron on Aliens.
There aren't many live action, cyberpunk motion pictures that really exude the style (most end up looking like cheap [/i]Blade Runner[/i] clones), just as there are very few comic book movies that look like comic books, and this is why Death Machine gets a thumbs up in my book. Watching the film actually feels like reading a comic book, from framing, to texture, to colouring and cutting. You can almost hear the pages turning. The only major breaks in this style are the Raimi inspired Death Machine P.O.V.s, kind of Evil Dead meets Duke Nuke 'Em.
Death Machine is over-long for sure, and a lot of the film's more lofty ideas are lost in the flood of exposition that is the first third. I have to admit that I was totally confused as to what specifically was going on at the CHAANK Corporation, though once people start running from the title monster the plot really doesn't matter. What matters is the film's pure energy.
This energy is given a nice boost by the low rent (at the time at least) cast, including a young and buffed down John Sharian, a post- Brisco County Ely Pouget, a fine young actor I've never heard of named Martin McDougall, a super slimy Richard Brake, Porkins himself William Hootkins, and the uncanny Brad Dourif. The film's comic book nature means that none of these actors are particularly 'challenged' in their roles; Pouget makes for a good Ripley fill-in, McDougall and Sharian are likeable tough guys, but it is, of course, Dourif that digests the most scenery. It's always wise for a director with less than invincible script to let an actor like Dourif loose with his character, and as a fan of the man I was not disappointed. Oh, and don't blink or you may miss the beautiful Miss Rachel Weisz.
If searching for realistic complaints about the film I have to come back to the run time, because I really wasn't expecting much in the way of classic cinema from something called Death Machine. It's sort of like two shorts crammed into one two-hour feature. At the beginning of the film there is the story of a futuristic corporation breaking the rules on the road to world domination. Very OCP-like stuff. This is the film that houses all the weird and unfortunately confusing stuff. After about thirty minutes of that film we tear into the Terminator 2 inspired robot chase movie (right down to an elevator scene), which is probably the movie most viewers will be expecting. These two films, both good films, are at odds throughout the runtime.
A mainstay of American cable TV, and easily found in bargain DVD bins all over the States, Death Machine really begs to be seen in widescreen, and for widescreen your going to have to go to Britain. This UK release is non-anamorphic, but doesn't lose two thirds of its picture because of full frame tampering, so it's worth it. The image is grainy in the extreme and washed out, but the occasional ghosting is what bugged me the most. When zooming on an anamorphic set the lack of detail becomes pretty obvious, but I was surprised at the overall smoothness of the image. I was expecting much more in the way of pixilation.
This release could really use a 5.1 upgrade because the sound design is overtly aggressive. The Death Machine itself is a big old bucket of loud. The music is pretty aggressive too. The Dolby Stereo track we're left with is all fine and good, but lacks the bass and surround attack the film could really use. There is a flatness to the whole track, but important dialogue is discernible, and things never get too muddy.
Death Machine is a pleasant surprise, an energetic and amusing romp through comic book and video game visuals. It's not to original, and it isn't going to set anyone's world a fire, but it's easy to see why director Norrington was selected to direct the original Blade film. The DVD is lacking all around, but unlike US release it is widescreen, which is very important to this particular viewing experience.
You can this and other gnarly imports at Xploitedcinema.com.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 1st January 1995
Disc Type: Single side, single layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo English
Easter Egg: No
Director: Stephen Norrington
Cast: Brad Dourif, John Sharian, Ely Pouget
Genre: Action and Sci-Fi
Length: 115 minutes
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