Death Race: Unrated
R1 - America - Universal Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Jeremiah Chin (4th January 2009).
The Film

2008 was a great year for car/racing movies based on a previous cult car/racing franchises, bringing two, nearly polar, stylistic opposites. At one end there’s the visually amazing, vastly underrated, super-colorful, living-breathing cartoon “Speed Racer” (2008) from the Wachowski brothers. At the opposite end of the spectrum comes Speed Racer’s bizzaro twin: “Death Race” (2008), a gritty, very grey and bleakly colored, bloody, R-rated car explosion extravaganza from Paul W.S. Anderson; the man who brought you “Mortal Combat” (1995) and “Event Horizon” (1997).

Diverging from the plot of the original “Death Race 2000” (1975), “Death Race” takes place in the year 2012 after the economy has fallen apart and now former race car driver and steel worker Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is unemployed. After returning from a near riot following his last day on the job, Ames is framed for his wife’s murder and sent to the prison on Terminal Island, home of the national pay-per-view phenomenon Death Race. Soon, the prison’s warden and Death Race’s director Hennessey (Joan Allen) convinces/blackmails Ames into taking over the role of Frankenstein, who died in the last race against Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), but the popularity of the masked racer demands his return, so Ames joins the Death Race as 'Frankenstein,' trying to win Frankenstein’s final race and potentially win his freedom before Machine Gun Joe can take him out.

Anderson’s story is almost like it tried to re-craft “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) into a car movie targeted specifically at the 18-35 male demographic, an ‘everyman’ styled protagonist, wrongfully imprisoned who tries to escape the clutches of an oppressive warden and head prison guard with the help of the friends he meets in the prison. Okay, maybe it’s a bit more tenuous of a connection, but the drama that’s put into the movie is just about as ridiculous as that comparison; it’s just done to get to the next section so that the entire work moves together smoothly. As functional as it is though, Statham pulls it off well and is great to watch; it would take an incompetent director/writer to create an action movie too terrible for Statham simply because he’s one of the most watchable actors working in movies today.

Of course what the movie really comes down to are the racing scenes, most of which are done without CG and feature actual cars doing outrageous stunts and explosions, which are truly great to watch. Anderson does a good job of showing off all of the action of the racing scenes while pulling off some ridiculous stunts like spinning a car around just to fire machine guns into the car behind it. In terms of pure car racing action, “Death Race” gets up there with some of the better contenders. The way the plot draws into the car racing scenes is a great example of the influence of video games on film as each car has to pass over a power-up to give the drivers defensive or offensive capabilities, turning the movie into a sort of “Twisted Metal” homage with less evil clowns.

Overall the film isn’t super clever or operating on the same arena of commentary that the original Roger Corman classic aimed for, but it’s a great car-action movie that has explosions, absurd amount of bullets, flames and spikes and a few jokes (and a handful of these are fairly homophobic) thrown between to keep the film running between car chases. The release includes both the unrated and theatrical cuts, though the difference between the two is negligible (the unrated cut runs about 6 minutes longer). Both contain a healthy amount of splatters, explosions, gunfire and Jason Statham, everything you would expect from Anderson’s “Death Race” (2008).

Video

Presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer looks incredibly crisp and clean, and the colors come through fairly nicely even though the entire of the film has the sort of grey-gunmetal look. The lighting in the film and the directing look good enough in the transfer and match the feel of the film.

Audio

There are three audio tracks in English, French or Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 sound transfer sounds good, the sound moves well for a racing movie and has the right feel for all of car racing and exploding excitement going on screen. The soundtrack is almost appropriately cheesy to the different scenes, invoking the odd heavy guitar for the racing and destruction, while using the twangy and poppy beats for every scene that ogles the female copilots.
Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are also included.

Extras

The single disc release contains both the 'Theatrical' and 'Unrated' cuts of the film, along with a cluster of special features including an audio commentary and two featurettes. Below is a closer look at these supplements.

First up is the audio commentary track, featuring writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt. This commentary is featured only on the 'Unrated' cut of the film, but does a good job of talking through the whole movie, talking about their first feature film “Shopping” (1994), and the different effects used in the film by pointing out all of the actual production in the racing and the lack of cg in many of the scenes, using incredible amounts of ammunition in firing all of the machine guns and the actual crash of the Dreadnaught which is truly a sight to behold. Overall a solid commentary track that has some good insight on the production of the film and flows well with very few pauses.

The first of two featurettes is “Start your Engines: Making a Death Race” which runs for 19 minutes and 42 seconds. This making-of featurette goes through the production of the film in putting together the plot line, props, characterizations, etc. in the film. Focused on interviews with Statham, Anderson and Bolt, the trio talks about the training that went in to the film, Statham’s talent and build. The interviews are engaging and fairly funny throughout and keep the clip moving with a good amount of behind-the-scenes footage as well.

Last is “Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts” which runs for 7 minutes and 46 seconds. This featurette goes through the production and building of the different cars used in the death race, talking with the different stunt coordinators and effects supervisors, even showing the destruction of the dreadnaught from behind-the-scenes which looks incredible even without any kind of post production. A little on the short side, but really nice to see behind the scenes of many of the stunts they were able to pull off in the film and the surprising amount of practical effects used.

There are also some start-up bonus trailers included on the disc for:

- “Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior” which runs for 1 minute and 23 seconds.
- “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” runs 35 seconds.
- “Burn After Reading” runs 36 seconds.
- “Hamlet 2” runs 33 seconds.
- “Wanted: Weapons of Fate” runs 1 minute 32 seconds.
- “Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.0” runs 32 seconds.
- "Universal Blu-ray" spot runs 1 minute 13 seconds.

Overall

The Film: B- Video: A- Audio: A- Extras: B Overall: B+

 


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