Paul WS Anderson
Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane
Paul WS Anderson
Sentenced to the world's most dangerous prison for a murder he did not commit, Jensen Ames has only one chance to get out alive: win the ultimate race to the death.
$12,621,090 on 2532 screens.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Spanish DTS 5.1
French DTS 5.1
Runtime: 105 min. (Theatrical)
111 min (Extended)
Release Date: 12/21/2008
• Both Theatrical and Extended Versions
• Audio Commentary with Director Paul WS Anderson and Producer Jeremy Bolt
• “Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race” Featurette
• “Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts” Featurette
• U-Control Interactive Feature
• “Create Your Own Race”
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Death Race [Blu-Ray] (2008)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 9, 2019)
As I mentioned when I reviewed The Women, remakes of beloved classics are a dicey proposition. Filmmakers stand on much more solid ground when they redo largely forgotten flicks – flicks such as 1975’s Death Race 2000, the subject of a 2008 reworking simply titled Death Race.
Set in 2012, we learn that the US economy has tanked, unemployment has skyrocketed, and crime has escalated. This means overcrowded prisons, so the private corporations that run the penitentiaries decide to broadcast battles to the death among inmates.
Ratings soar so the bosses find new ways to televise mayhem. This leads to the “Death Race”, an automotive free-for-all in which prisoners pilot supercharged vehicles and attempt to survive.
And the “Death Race” is where Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) finds himself. After he loses his job at a steel mill, someone frames him for the murder of his wife Suzy (Janaya Stephens) and he winds up in prison. Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) offers former auto racer Jensen a deal: if he pretends to be secretly deceased legend “Frankenstein” and win one race, he can go free.
Statham and director Paul WS Anderson seem to be a match made in movie heaven, as neither man has ever worked on a particularly good film. Instead, both make fairly generic action flicks that often feel like less than the sum of their parts.
That streak continues with the loud, aggressive and eminently forgettable Race. Some might blame the failure of the film on its source material, but I don’t. No one will ever mistake the flick’s premise and characters for Shakespeare, but they have potential.
Potential that the relentlessly mediocre Anderson can’t exploit, as the director fails to bring the slightest hint of spark or originality to the project. Instead, it feels like a robot – perhaps the “Michael Bay T-101” – directed the flick, so this is generic action filmmaking at its most ordinary.
Many movies have been described as videogames brought to life, but Race escalates this in a more literal way. The races themselves truly play out like levels from games, as the drivers actually have to zip over icons to activate various weapons and powers. The segments that fill space between race legs play out just like videogame cut-scenes.
Maybe some folks like the idea of a live-action videogame, but I don’t. If someone made a game out of Death Race, it’d probably be a blast to play. Watching it proves significantly less scintillating, unfortunately.
Although my reference to Statham as an actor who never seems to appear in good movies sounds like a strong knock on him, I don’t mean it that way. I actually think Statham has talent, but for whatever reason, he often finds himself stuck in a “B”-movie limbo. He seems to play virtually identical characters in all his flicks, and none of these works stand out as distinctive or particularly entertaining.
Race surrounds Statham with some good actors, virtually all of whom have “I’m doing this for the check” stamped on their foreheads. What in the heck is Joan Allen doing in this mess?
An actor with relentless class, Allen feels horribly out of place here. I nearly cringed every time I saw her, and I don’t know why she took this role, but I felt bad for her.
Just like I feel bad for folks stuck watching this mess of a movie. Death Race had some decent “B”-movie potential. Unfortunately, it demolished any positive elements with persistent crassness and stupidity.
The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio A-/ Bonus B-
Death Race appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. As expected, the image looked very good.
Sharpness largely satisfied, as the majority of the film boasted accurate delineation. A little softness hit some wider shots, but most of the movie looked tight and well-defined.
No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and the image lacked edge haloes. Print flaws also ailed to become a distraction.
Like virtually all action flicks these days, Death Race went with a heavily orange and teal palette. The transfer delivered the tones in an appropriate manner, even as tedious as the color choices were.
Blacks were dark and deep, while shadows showed nice definition. This was a more than competent transfer.
In addition, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Death Race proved even more satisfying. That came as no surprise, for if a movie with so much mayhem can’t light up my speakers, I’m not sure what can.
The soundfield proved consistently active and involving. Cars zoomed and jumped around the room, and the scenes placed us in the action. Surround usage was quite full, and the mix created a strong setting for the adventure.
Audio quality was always excellent. Speech appeared natural and concise, with no edginess or other issues.
Music seemed rich and dynamic, and effects followed suit. Those elements were crisp and clear, and they showed terrific bass response. The audio was good enough for an “A-“.
How did the Blu-ray compare to the DVD version? The lossless audio offered more oomph, and the visuals were tighter, cleaner and more natural, without the edge haloes and softness that marred the DVD. It’s a notable upgrade.
The Blu-ray includes the same extras as the DVD as well as some unique options, and we open with an audio commentary from director Paul WS Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt. Both men sit together for this running, screen-specific chat in which they discuss the development of the remake, cast, characters and performances, sets and locations, cinematography and editing, effects, stunts and action, the cars and the racing scenes, changes for the unrated cut, and a few other production notes.
While Anderson and Bolt tend to make mediocre movies, they manage to record good commentaries. A few lulls occur, but they usually fill the time well and give us an informative look at the flick.
Although nothing about the commentary stands out as tremendously insightful or memorable, the track covers the movie in a satisfying and enjoyable way. That automatically makes it superior to Death Race itself.
Two featurettes follow. Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race runs 19 minutes, 44 seconds and includes remarks from Anderson, Bolt, production designer Paul D. Austerberry, 2nd unit director Spiro Razatos, picture car coordinator Brian Louis, 2nd unit special effects supervisor Al Broussard, 2nd unit stunt coordinator Andy Gill, picture car mechanic Kaleb Hauge, and actors Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, and Joan Allen.
“Engines” covers the project’s origins, cast, characters and performances, sets and locations, visual design, cars and shooting the race sequences. Because the commentary already covers so much information, you shouldn’t expect a lot of unique material here.
The featurette goes over a lot of topics already discussed by Bolt and Anderson, though the additional perspectives add to our knowledge of the film, and some behind the scenes bits help as well. Nonetheless, “Engines” becomes too redundant to turn into anything special.
Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts goes for seven minutes, 51 seconds, and features Anderson, Hauge, Gill, Martinez, Statham, Broussard, Bolt, special effects supervisor Louis Craig, and stunt driver Jack Gill.
As expected, “Wheel” looks at how the movie delivered all the crashes and stunts. It offers decent details and some nice footage from the set.
The disc presents both the theatrical version (1:44:56) of Death Race and an unrated cut (1:50:35). I didn’t see the film theatrically and only watched the extended edition here, so I can’t comment on the changes between the two. However, I wanted to mention that the disc includes both options.
Unique to the Blu-ray, U-Control splits into two domains. “Tech Specs” brings some basics about the various drivers and fails to add much of interest.
“Picture in Picture” presents footage from the set and comments from Anderson, Bolt, Statham, Allen, McShane, Gill, location manager Michele St-Arnaud, key makeup artist Annick Chartier, makeup artist Alex Hanson, fight coordinator Phil Culotta, special effects foreman Jeff Hansen, special effects car fabricator Martin Laneuville, special effects foreman Jason Hansen, stunt driver Gil Combs, head armourer Charles Taylor, armourer Rocky Thompson, and actor Max Ryan.
These remarks look at stylistic choices, various effects and stunts, the original film and its adaptation, sets and locations, story/characters, cast and performances, costumes and makeup, and vehicles/weapons.
PiP features tend to be spotty, but this one works unusually well. We get a good mix of behind the scenes shots and filmmaker comments, all of which turn this into an informative program.
Another BD exclusive, Create Your Own Race allows you to edit together a scene from a mix of choices. It’s a fun idea but not very good in terms of its clunky execution.
Loud, crude, and moronic, Death Race plays like a videogame brought to the big screen – and that’s not a compliment. The action never heats up, and the total lack of involving story or characters makes the movie a chore to watch. The Blu-ray provides mediocre picture along with terrific audio and fairly useful extras. Other than the sound, nothing here excels, and the flick itself is a dud.
To rate this film, visit the prior review of DEATH RACE