Blu Ray Title: Death Race
Disk Release Date: 21 December 2008
Rated: R/Unrated on same disk
Screen format: 1080P High Definition Widescreen 2.35:1
First theatrical release: 22 August 2008
Previous releases on disk: Day and Date with Anamorphic Widescreen DVD
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Case and Joan Allen
Sound Formats: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French and Spanish DTS 5.1
Length: Rated: 1 hour 45 minutes, Unrated 1 hour 51 minutes
Subtitles: English, Spanish, Frenchs
Death Race is a re-imagining of the 1973 Roger Corman cult classic Death Race 2000, eschewing the camp vibe of the original for a gritty look and a more sympathetic lead character. It’s a big, dumb film that mixes the last-man-standing ground that films like ‘Battle royale’ and ‘The Condemned’ have already covered with the auto-lust of films like The Fast and The Furious, switching the titular race from the long distance rally of the original for a more NASCAR like sealed off oval track for this go around. Trade in the camp for some grim humor and a sexy co-star and you have a film thats better than it actually sounds, in fact I liked it a lot.
Blue collar worker Jensen Ames (Statham) loses everything he has built when framed for his wife’s death. He is sentenced to life on an island prison where the inmates are participants in a brutal contest, The Death Race, a televised evolution of of stock car racing where the cars are armed to the teeth and the winner of enough races can win their freedom. Ames is pressured by the warden, Hennesy (Allen), into taking the spot of the dead past champion, Frankenstein because Frank’s face has never been seen by the public and Ames was a renowned driver himself long before being incarcerated.
Ames has two things on his side, first his navigator is the exceptionally skilled (and beautiful) Martinez (Case) and his team leader is the crafty and experienced ‘Coach’ (McShane). Standing in his way are 25 other drivers, which comprises a rogues gallery of thugs including one he suspects is his wife’s actual killer.
What sets Death Race apart from other similar films is the strength of Statham, able to carry the film with heart and bridge the ridiculous plot with the possibility that a person like Ames could really hold true to his new life even in the face of all he has been through. Imagine Andy and Red from Shawshank Redemption melded to ‘The Most Dangerous Game‘ and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the vibe this film has going for it.
The other strength is the ensemble cast I had never been exposed to McShane outside of Deadwood and his character here initially came off to me as a cheap DeNiro ripoff and then matured into something I found genuinely funny. Tyrese Gibson also holds his own against Statham, and the rest of the convict crew has its share of highlights.
In the end I found a fun film backed up with strong action sequences along with some good surprises in the story, tied together with performances that hit harder than one would expect out of a film like this.
Sound Quality: 4.5/5
Death Race has a strong surround mix and an even stronger soundtrack by composer Paul Haslinger. Haslinger’s instrumentals combine hard rock with layered synths that create a grungy but upbeat rhythm that fit the tone of the film to a t. There’s also at least one Rap song in the film that isn’t on the official CD, Click Clack by Slim Thug.
Action films depend on their sound as much as the visuals these days and Death Race does not disappoint in this area. The throaty and guttural roar of engines balance out the swirls of gunfire, tire screeches and crashes. All corners are well represented and the Bass holds it all together nicely. Solid all the way around.
Visual Quality: 4/5
Death Race’s dark and grungy sound is mirrored in it’s overly grainy and high contrast visual design. It’s not one that leads to a feeling of ‘wow’ but as a specific visual style it couldn’t be more perfect. The transfer is also totally clean, sharp and free from obvious defects such as edge enhancement or artificial grain reduction. In the end, it’s impossible to penalize the BD for choices that are inherent in the film itself and overall I found the look interesting enough to warrant at least a 4.
Extra Features: 4/5
Death Race comes packed with a tasty selection of extras, leading off with a digital copy on a second disk and several U-Control tracks including static tech specs which let you pull up info on all the racers at any point and a picture-in-picture ‘making of’ track which I actually enjoyed (imagine that!). U-control still is my least favorite way to see extras but the PiP managed to be interesting enough to get me to jump to a half dozen of the individual chapter stops, which says a lot more about the content than it does the tech. There is also a feature length commentary track, a ‘make a movie’ interactive dohicky similar to the ‘Boats and Hos’ tool on Step Brothers and, in a first as far as I know for Universal, the film is D-Box enabled for the 3 of you who have this technology in your home. The two featurettes don’t disappoint either, the first being ‘Start your Engines’ which is the traditional 20 minute behind the scenes tour and ‘Behind the Wheel’ which takes a deeper look at the stunts, most of which were done practically without CGI. Both are worth your time.
Overall: 4/5 (not an average) - Recommended
Going in I expected to be disappointed, I’m a huge fan of the campy original, and while Death Race takes an extraordinarily different tack than Death race 2000 did, I think it succeeds on all fronts. While the film’s look is dark and grimy, it works well for the subject matter and the sound lives up just as well. Add in the good selection of extras including a portable copy and it’s easy for me to label this one recommended, give it a shot!