DEATH JOURNEY (1976) Blu-ray
Director: Fred Williamson
Code Red Releasing

Shot back-to-back with Fred "The Hammer" Williamson's debuts MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS was the more conventional DEATH JOURNEY, getting an HD upgrade from Code Red Releasing.

Williamson chronicles the adventures of series character Jessie Crowder in DEATH JOURNEY in which the ex-cop is hired by District Attorney Virgil Frye (Art Maier) to transport accountant Finley (Bernard Kirby) across the country from Los Angeles to testify against his former boss Jack Rosewald (Patrick McCullough, MAGIC) after two other witnesses are assassinated. From the moment they hit the road just to get to the airport, the mismatched duo are targeted by hitmen (giving Crowder a chance to try out his martial arts training) and leaving a trail of bodies (as predicted by Frye's associate) in their wake. Suspecting that someone in Frye's camp must have leaked their travel plans, Crowder and an increasingly reluctant Finley race against the clock – when Crowder is not bedding down various women they meet along the way including comely motorist Alice (Alexis Tramunti) and a classy model (Stephanie Faulkner, HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH) – to make alternate travel plans. No matter what Crowder tries, Rosewald's men always seem to be one step ahead or seconds behind them.

Faster-paced than MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS but also seeming to given short shrift when it comes to planning and resources, DEATH JOURNEY stages its major setpieces quick and dirty in the bright, sunny outdoors in parking lots, outside gas stations, and in the desert, and with telephoto lenses in more people areas with sniper victims taking bloodless hits amidst believably bewildered passersby. The plotting is even more rudimentary and the casting and characterization even more sparse, making the film much more dependent on Williamson's screen charisma. The film does not wear out its welcome at just 78 minutes, but it is best enjoyed supporting another feature, be it MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS or one of the other Crowder films NO WAY BACK – the trailer of which appeared on some Code Red DVDs but has not been released – or the later BLIND RAGE and THE LAST FIGHT. Among the many "thugs" in the cast is stuntman George P. Wilbur (HALLOWEEN 4 and 5). Seen early on as Williamson's karate instructor is stuntman Emil Farkas (THE GOLDEN CHILD) who played a police officer in MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS and also appeared in the Blaxploitation pics DEATH DIMENSION and THAT MAN BOLT (with Williamson).

Released on panned-and-scanned VHS by Unicorn Home Video in a clamshell case reproducing the original poster art, this inferior transfers wound up in multi-film Blaxploitation packs from the likes of Brentwood and TGG Direct. Code Red's 2010 DVD edition restored the film in high definition from its original 35mm negatives in its original Panavision 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratios in an anamorphic transfer, restoring violence cut from the opening sequence. Code Red's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray edition is derived from a brand new 2K scan of the same materials. DEATH JOURNEY is virtually unblemished save for a negative scratch in one of the restored bits of violence and the splice line dipping into the top of the frame in one or two shots, looking great on Blu-ray when taking into account the rough-and-ready shooting style of both films (with exteriors seeming ambitious and risky in MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS but economical in DEATH JOURNEY). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is in fine condition.

Williamson appears with Code Red's Bill Olsen on a commentary with a few dead spaces but also some interesting background information on the film. While he tried to pack as many names into MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS for as little money as possible, he tried in DEATH JOURNEY to shoot in as many locations for little money (the film was shot with a crew of five at its smallest with Williamson learning to do a number of tasks in lighting and sound). Olsen spends a lot of time pointing out films that ripped off elements of DEATH JOURNEY which Williamson takes in stride, but Olsen also touches upon the film's treatment by distributors at the bottom of double and triple bills and his inability to find even a newspaper ad mat for it. Olsen also suggests that a dissolve-heavy fireplace lovemaking scene might have been inspired by similar visuals in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR but Williamson says he did it in order to obscure nudity.

Williamson does another on-camera interview (27:21) in which he spends only a portion speaking about DEATH JOURNEY and his strategy of raising money with foreign sales, shooting in several locations for such a low budget of $75,000 that the film could not possibly lose money, and the rest discussing his other films, including ADIOS AMIGO with an improvising Richard Pryor and a twelve-page script, the other Jesse Crowder films including BLIND RAGE shot in the Philippines, as well as the period he spent in Italy making films like the three Italian BLACK COBRA films (and his discovery that the producers were trying to sell BLACK COBRA IV intercutting recycled footage of him with a double who kept his back to the camera), as well as his collaborations with Larry Ludman (aka producer Fabrizio de Angelis) and Lucio Fulci. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:06). The Blu-ray edition is limited and available directly from the Code Red Big Cartel. (Eric Cotenas)