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Feature


Ex-con and racing champion Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) comes home from a work related riot, and is framed for the murder of his wife. Upon entering prison on ‘Terminal Island’ Ames is approached by Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), and asked to don the mask and personality if ‘Frankenstein’, the most popular driver in the history of Death Race¬—a prison based car race with a high mortality rate, which is sold as a pay-per-view event across America. When his child is threatened, Ames agrees to Hennessey’s terms, and the Death Race begins

Death Race: Unrated
Paul Bartel’s original Death Race 2000 is one of my favourite movies ever. I’m not being ironic, there are no air quote around the word favourite, and I’m not talking guilty pleasures—I really like Death Race 2000. I like it because it was way ahead of its time (satirizing media over-exposure and violent entertainment a decade before it was cool), and yet, it’s so unapologetic it could never be made in today’s climate (the point of the game is to kill innocent people while racing). The long gestating remake/sequel was a bad idea from the get-go; studio money would never let the film be the unabashed fun it should be, and undeniably bland video game movie director Paul W.S. Anderson was never the man for the job.

Though it opens with a brief and choppy glance at the previous year’s Death Race, this pseudo remake takes forever to get to the goddamned title race. The original film, despite its goofy streak, and generally easy to ignore cinematic achievements, has the good sense to start the film with the titular race. Structurally speaking, Bartel’s script is perfect because it tells the story of the 'Death Race', and of the characters in the form of sardonic television announcements, rather than normal narrative means. The joke is never far from Bartel's mind. It’s clear from the start that this new Death Race isn’t supposed to funny in the same way the original was, but would a little more of a silly streak hurt?

Death Race: Unrated
I had assumed that there’d be no way comedy director Bartel and his shoe-string budget could compare to a studio backed flick from a generally competent action director (his car stunts are actually pretty impressive, all things considered), but Anderson uses so many cuts, camera shakes and uncomfortable close-ups that the racing is more confusing than exciting. The blow-ups and flipping vehicles are fun enough, but what’s really missing is the original film’s sense of ridiculous scope. Death Race 2000 is a cross country epic, and as far over the top as Roger Corman’s menial budget would offer, whereas Death Race is a bunch of thugs driving in a circle. It’s just not the same.

Anderson has a PG-13 mind; even his R-rated movies are really PG-13 movies with a couple extra doses of ick. He doesn’t have it in him to write as dark, violent, and purely exploitative a film as the original source material calls for. This is a mainstream movie, no mistake. Anderson almost looks like he’s getting the point a few times (the busty girls coming off the bus in slow motion, Machine Gun Joe offing his own driver), but even this ‘unrated’ version of the film isn’t nearly mean spirited enough.

Character development is (unsurprisingly) flat, like Anderson and his co-conspirators watched HBO’s OZ in fast-forward and figured they got the gist of prison life. I’m not saying Death Race 2000 featured deep and loving character explorations, but it was clear that it wasn’t a priority. Anderson takes over half an hour trying to set up some semblance of social realism, and fails gigantically. If the characters work at all it’s because somehow Anderson managed to score a really great cast, including ‘do anything for a buck’ actors like Statham and Ian McShane (why Ian?). Unfortunately, no one but Joan Allen appears to be having any fun.

Death Race: Unrated

Video


In-keeping with what’s popular in the world of mainstream cinema, Anderson—who used to have a penchant for slicker than slick looking movies (too slick in many cases if you ask me)—shoots Death Race is shot grim and gritty. Blacks are key to the look, and in hi-def they are rich, deep, and sharply cut. The saturated highlights are equally clean, clear and hardly blended. The grit leads to some heavy, stylized grain, which is more distinctly defined on the hi-def release. Colours are mostly muted as soon as the narrative enters the prison, revelling in steal greys and blues, with similarly browed flesh tones, and a few punchy highlights of warm hues. Details are consistent throughout, and there’s no more noise in the dark shots than the light ones.

Audio


Stylized, semi-futuristic car chase movies are made for elaborate and aggressive soundtracks, and in a full bodied 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Death Race does not disappoint. If anything the track is too loud during the big race moments (as if that’s a negative), but the basic volume is pretty consistent throughout. The film is shot mostly in a more intimate fashion than most big car movies, which leads to fewer sweeping or moving vehicle sounds, but the sound of surrounding cars is well established. The machine gun fire, the crashes and the exploding rockets all reveal solid punch in the LFE, which is otherwise focused on the goofy techno-metal soundtrack.

Death Race: Unrated

Extras


Extras begin with a commentary featuring director/writer Paul Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt. Anderson starts us by telling us the film took fourteen years to develop, then tells us about his much more interesting sounding original work-up for the film, under the title Death Race 3000. To save money Anderson changed gears to a semi-prequel, which was a thought I had while watching the film, but didn’t really care to think about to directly. Otherwise, Anderson and Bolt are both bright individuals, and they keep the commentary moving with a mix of behind the scenes factoids, and personal opinion pieces. The track is also a great assistance to me as a reviewer that didn’t see the theatrical cut, and doesn’t care to sit through two versions of the film with a note pad.

The U-Control items are two—Tech Specs, and a PiP option. The PiP, of course, didn’t work for me. Tech Specs is a fun option for fans on their fourth or fifth viewing, as each of the nine drivers can be followed during the course of the film, including a driver profile, a current race report, vehicle specs, and a listing of placement and kills. Another interactive feature is a ‘Create a Race’ option that allows the viewer to select camera the camera angles to cut their own version of a race scene.

The extras are finished out with two featurettes. ‘Start your Engines’ is a slightly thickened, twenty-minute EPK that likely showed on cable television between movies. It’s made up of the usual mix of talking heads over-praising the film’s achievements, out of context behind the scenes footage, and a few trailer images. ‘Behind the Wheel’ is a more specific look at the car stunts, but an equal mix of fluff and information to ‘Start Your Engines’.

Death Race: Unrated

Overall


I keep having people tell me I can’t compare Death Race to Death Race 2000, and perhaps if I hadn’t been such a Paul Bartel fan I’d have been satisfied with Paul Anderson’s aggressive, but not very spectacular action movie. There’s certainly something to be said for the simplicity of the film, and Anderson manages more than a few visceral thrills. If you aren’t interested in ‘70s exploitation, or political satire, then skip the original as to not spoil your expectations, and enjoy the blow-ups and crashes.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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