Judge David Johnson is a champion of the local New Hampshire Death Race. He won a Pizza Hut gift certificate.
Our review of Death Race, published December 20th, 2008, is also available.
Get ready for a killer ride.
Paul W.S. Anderson strikes back, serving up a reworked version of the classic B-movie Death Race 2000. Heresy? Yes, but…
Facts of the Case
Jensen Ames (Jason Statham, The Bank Job) is a former racecar driver and a current family man trying to eke out a living in a run-down future. When a violent intrusion and a frame job lands Jensen in prison, he's forced into an unsavory deal with the sinister warden (Joan Allen). She's been operating a lucrative competition that pits prisoners against each other in a car race to the death.
Jensen is pegged as the go-to guy to bring in the ratings for the Death Race and reluctantly he agrees. And so it is, he and his loyal pit crew put together a kick-ass car with machine guns and napalm so he can commit vehicular homicide on a massive, chaotic scale.
I'm a big fan of the original Death Race 2000 and I'm sure most like-minded movie viewers felt a reflexive revulsion at the idea of a remake, especially a project helmed by one of the prime whipping boys in the geek community. But against all odds, I enjoyed this movie, a whole lot more than I thought I would.
But, the first thing you have to prepare yourself for is the fact that this movie is pretty much completely different than the original. There are guys named Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe and there are cars with guns but that's where the similarities cease. Gone are the black comedy, the gratuitous nudity, and the flattened-pedestrians-for-points. Even the very nature of the race itself is replaced with a dark, gritty, vengeance-fueled straight-up action movie. Go in expecting that, and there's value to be had in Anderson's smash 'em up.
I've got an uneven history with the director—Mortal Kombat was dumb-ass fun, Event Horizon has some satisfying cheap scares, but I fell asleep in Resident Evil and Alien vs. Predator made me want to punch toddlers—but I can safely confess that Death Race is his most entertaining flick by a large margin.
Considering Anderson's history with movies based on video games, it should be no surprise that that's exactly how Death Race plays, kind of like Twisted Metal the Movie. It's a hard-R, flashy, noisy affair that pours the action on thick and nasty at the 30-minute mark and doesn't look back. The typical Paul W.S. Anderson ADHD editing is still in effect, but not as pronounced or distracting as in his other films. Most of the car action happens in broad daylight and is shot well. It's good stuff, practically executed with only a handful of visual effects shots woven in. Yeah, the cars are far less imaginative than in Death Race 2000 but they're still cool in that fetishistic Mad Max kind of way—lots of machine guns and flames and missiles and pointy metal objects jutting out of windshields.
Look, bottom line is, if you've got an itch for a vacuous, 'roided-up, quasi-apocalyptic action movie that will blast the carpets off your living room floor, Death Race will scratch it. You might feel yourself slipping into something resembling a sugar coma afterwards, but sometimes you just need to bombard your senses with vehicular manslaughter.
Universal assembled an impressive Blu-ray, and for my money, the studio has become one of the premiere innovators in the high-def format. The picture quality (2.35:1) is very strong, despite the gritty, almost monochrome color palette Anderson uses. What the film lacks in vibrant colors it makes up for in detailing; the strengthened resolution does wonders for the mayhem, rendering the action and cars and explosions with a clarity that goes a long way towards making the experience. A definite contrast to standard DVD. The audio (DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio) is equally impressive, delivering a monster sound treatment. Setting aside some excruciating power hip-hop, the aggressive score and pounding effects work total for a clean, enveloping aural presentation.
Extras are varied and cool. The traditional stuff: commentary from Paul W.S. Anderson and two short, but decent featurettes on the making-of the film and the stunts. The high-def specifics: picture-in-picture (Universal is still the best in the business here) with driver profiles, concept artwork and on-set footage. BD-Live includes custom commentaries and chat options and an ambitious build-your-own race interactive feature. This last one was very interesting in theory, allowing you to access multiple angles from the movie's big action scenes and splice them together to save and share, but there's one hiccup: the completed scenes pause between custom transitions and it's distracting.
The Blu-ray is a winner, sporting slick audio and visual work and creative extras. The big surprise is that the movie amused me. Both the theatrical R-rated and unrated cuts are included.
Not guilty. I'm just as surprised as you are.
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