Roger Corman's cult-classic "Death Race 2000" was a slyly subversive slice of social commentary disguised as a raunchy, bloody, and darkly comedic action flick. While the film's skewering of post-Vietnam War era political posturing and the bloodlust of an America hopelessly addicted to a flashy gladiatorial sport may have seemed overly precious in the decades following the film's original release, in hindsight Corman and director Paul Bartel's film proved eerily prophetic. As millions cheer for men beating the bejesus out of one another in cages, while millions more sit glued to NASCAR events in hopes of seeing their favorite drivers go up in flames, the idea of a "Death Race" is no longer that far-fetched.
Paul W.S. Anderson's 2008 reimagining (titled, simply, "Death Race") tinkers with a few ingredients, but the end result is a gleefully bloody and sardonic mishmash of Corman's film and "The Longest Yard", where our hero, Jensen Ames, finds himself locked up in a maximum security facility after someone frames him for the murder of his wife. The prison, Terminal Island, is also the location of Death Race; a three day auto race around the facility in which felons vie for a chance at freedom whilst shooting up their competition. Ames, it just so happens, is a former professional racer, so, when the ratings-obsessed Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) offers him the chance to fill the shoes of the phenomenally popular (and deceased) driver, Frankenstein, it becomes clear to him why he was set up and brought to Terminal Island. Motivated by revenge, Ames takes on the challenge, and, with the help of his pit boss, Coach (Ian McShane), aims to give Hennessey a race she'll never forget.
While it isn't nearly as smart or inventive as its predecessor, Anderson's update is a very fun, brazenly violent, and laugh out loud funny piece of action schlock cinema. It plays out like an ultra-bloody video game, with cars dashing for power-ups and booby-traps while Warden Hennessey lords over it all from her control room, ultimately deciding who wins or loses. The races are broken up into three events, and with each new phase comes new challenges, weapons, and instruments of destruction. Anderson even gives us introductions to the racers in which the actors stand alongside their suped-up vehicles, glaring back at the viewer, just as they would in the character menu of a videogame. While I can see how this approach may rub some viewers the wrong way, for me it was in perfect keeping with the tone of the film. The only major issue I had with the film was with its far too saccharine ending, which flies in the face of everything that had happened to that point.
Statham is right at home doing what he does best, and, despite his somewhat limited range , I rarely leave one of his films anything less than entertained. Death Race is no exception. It's also a hoot to see Joan Allen slog in the trenches of B-movie cinema alongside Statham, McShane, and Tyrese Gibson. When Hennessey pitches a fit toward the film's climax, you'll never look at this "serious" actress the same way again.
Death Race roars onto Blu-ray with a solid 2.35:1 1080p transfer that compliments the film's gritty, grimy look. Terminal Island is awash in industrial grays, blues, and blacks, with a perpetually (and starkly contrasted) overcast sky. The image is presented with perfect tonal balance and exceptionally fine detail that really gives the film a lot of visual pop, especially during the excellent racing sequences.
The DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is also impressive, with an enveloping surround mix that makes full use of the satellites and rears, and intense and throbbing bass that gives the subwoofer a thorough workout. The guttural purr of the engines and percussive gunfire are enough to get one evicted, never mind the pulsating bass of the rap-heavy soundtrack, but , thankfully, the dialogue is never lost in the mix. Still, this thing is LOUD!
Universal presents Death Race on Blu-ray, locked and loaded with an arsenal of extra HD goodies, including the beefy featurette, Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race,Behind the Wheels: Dissecting the Stunts, and a feature length commentary by Anderson and Producer, Jeremy Bolt, that's quiteengaging and entertaining(as are most of the commentary tracks I've heard from the much-maligned director).
Universal also rolls out a pair of U-Control features, including a nifty Tech Specs feature which offers up little dossiers on each of the drivers, their cars, and their "race records". It's flashy and fun, albeit not something you'll use more than once. The other U-Control feature is a PiP mode, which offers interviews and behind-the-scenes bits throughout the run of the film. The disc is also sports a few BD-Live! options, but I was having trouble connecting to the site, so I have yet to see these features for myself.
Death Race is a non-stop thrill ride that is sure to please gearheads and gorehounds alike. It's deliriously entertaining and unapologetically violent stuff that transcends genre trappings and is sure to ascend to the same sort of cult-status of the original, albeit for entirely different reasons and for an entirely different sort of cult. Blu-ray owners who love their action loud, fast, and bloody would do well adding this one to their collection, while Jason Statham fans should consider this one a must-buy.