Color, 2008, 111m. / Directed by Paul w.S. Anderson
Starring Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jason Clarke
Universal (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

Though marketed as an escapist slice of sci-fi/action mayhem, this remake of the eternally popular '70s drive-classic Death Race 2000 kicks off with a text statement, "2012 - The United States economy collapses," bound to induce a shudder in audiences watching it mere months after its Summer 2008 theatrical release. As the set up goes to explain, "Unemployment hits a record high," while the skyrocketing prison rates force corporations to turn the institutions into profit-generating machines. Enter the Death Race, a reality Internet broadcast sensation (mmm, sure this is 2012?) in which inmates race and battle each other to the death on Terminal Island, where their jail is located. When its star racer, Frankenstein (a voice cameo by the original's star, David Carradine) is taken out of commission by newer hotshot Machine Gun Joe (2 Fast 2 Furious' Gibson), the prison warden, Hennessey (Allen), is forced to find a replacement for her star's Ford Mustang. Enter Jensen Ames (Statham), a laid-off mill worker and former racer accused of murdering his wife. The warden offers him a chance to go free and be reunited with his child if he wins a single death race, and with the aid of Frankenstein's navigator, Case (Martinez), he embarks on the race -- only to find that his wife's real killer is closer than he thinks, and the powers that be have no intention of letting him off the island alive.

The most reliable working star in modern drive-in fare, Jason Statham usually guarantees a rousing popcorn experience (Crank, Cellular, The Transporter) and somehow even manages to avoid humiliating himself in his rare turkeys (War, In the Name of the King). Fortunately Death Race comes out in the former category, most likely because it wisely keeps the similarities to the original 1975 Paul Bartel film to a bare minimum. The basic idea is roughly the same (along with the Frankestein character), but the the original's jolting satire (which somehow managed to completely elude Roger Ebert, who also missed the humor in Piranha and Alligator) has been largely replaced here with basic action movie storytelling, with a visual and narrative approach closer to post-Death Race films like John Carpenter's Escape from New York and especially Stuart Gordon's Fortress, from which this cribs several narrative ideas.

There's still plenty of humor in the tough-guy dialogue, of course, and Allen as always is excellent and relishes her villainous duties in a role that could have easily come off as slumming. Proving yet again that cable TV seems to be nurturing better talent than theatrical features these days, Death Race packs in a roster of familiar TV faces including Brotherhood's Jason Clarke, Deadwood's Ian McShane, Saints & Sinners' Natalie Martinez, and even that scary-looking bald guy who played Escobar on Nip/Tuck. You also get some shout outs to Universal's The Fast and the Furious in the form of Gibson (who was in 2 Fast 2 Furious) and even an amusing vehicle cameo.

British director Paul W.S. Anderson planned a Death Race remake at least back to 2000 when his original plans were scrapped, and while he's never been a critical favorite, he has managed to escape from the "video game director" stigma of early films like Mortal Combat by turning out films like Resident Evil (his best to date and much, much better than it had any right to be, unlike its miserable sequels) and visually accomplished but deeply flawed efforts like Event Horizon and the initial Alien vs. Predator. His style here is surprisingly gritty and spare, with the whole film rendered in dark browns and steely grays; it's actually a shock to see untreated, colorful footage on the set in the making-of extras. The approach works, though, given the grim and perhaps unintentionally timely nature of the story, and the action scenes are well executed and relatively coherent compared to the "mix it in a blender" approach of many action films, though Allen's presence guarantees this isn't entirely free of post-Bourne Supremacy blender editing.

Universal's release of Death Race on both DVD and Blu-Ray contains the standard theatrical R-rated cut as well as an unrated version clocking in six minutes longer. Anderson's been vocal in the past about supposedly longer, drastically different pre-release versions of his films (particularly the still-elusive unrated version of Event Horizon), though these unrated versions tend to turn out to be only slightly different. As with most video releases these days, Death Race actually gains more in plot and character development in its unrated form (similar to the major narrative improvements in Hancock), with only some fleeting, very minimal bits of violent mayhem added in. It's far more coherent and interesting in the longer cut, however, and the pacing feels significantly more natural. Definitely stick with that version if you have a choice. As mentioned before, the color palette here is extremely limited, but the clarity and naturally cinematic quality of the transfer is satisfying throughout. The audio mix sounds dynamic and very home theater friendly in all of its incarnations, with Dolby Digital 5.1 for the DVD while Blu-Ray owners get the added bonus of English DTS Master Audio 5.1 as well as Spanish and French DTS tracks. English, French and Spanish subtitles are also provided. Lots of things go boom and crash really loud, exactly as you'd expect.

Extras include an audio commentary with Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt, who also do most of the talking for a 19-minute featurette, "Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race," which also features Statham and other cast members briefly chatting about the shoot. Other goodies include a 7-minute stunt featurette ("Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts"), a "Tech Specs" dossier on the cars and characters, and a bonus digital copy disc if you feel like watching lots of cars and bullets spraying around while you're at the gym. The Blu-ray adds the bonus of a "Create Your Own Race" feature (similar to the Men in Black exercise of assembling your own edit via seamless branching from long takes of raw footage) and a U-Control Picture-in-Picture feature with bonus cast and crew interviews sliding in and out during the feature playback. If you're D-Box Motion enabled at home, you get that added bonus, too; just brace yourself whenever a crash scene comes up or you might get thrown out of a window.

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