CSI: Grave Danger Review

Grave Danger opens in the standard CSI fashion with a series of swirling helicopter shots of Las Vegas by night. Yet rather than cut away to a crime scene which will prompt all manner of convoluted plotting and accommodate a couple twists, we instead witness George Eads singing along to some obscure pop ditty. The echoes of Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction are plain to see, and immediately guest director Quentin Tarantino has laid down his imprint on this two episode assignment.

Of course, it is Tarantino’s presence which is being used as this particular disc’s selling point and as such it’s important to ask who exactly it’s being targeted at. The season five boxed set – in which Grave Danger will play a part – will no doubt be hitting the shelves soon enough leaving fans of the series in a situation where they may as well wait. CSI, however, is a show with a certain anonymity, a certain emptiness, meaning that if you do miss an episode it’s not the end of the world – you’re not missing out an anything important. By the same token, then, you could theoretically miss out on a whole season, or indeed five, meaning that you don’t need any prior knowledge of the show to gain a full enjoyment of these two episodes. The characters have always been a little shallow (and effectively interchangeable as the various spin-offs/re-fits have revealed) and their bits of business which occasionally make themselves known essentially ephemeral; who, for example, really cared when Jorja Fox’s character was revealed as an alcoholic – and would it have made any difference if such material had been cut out? (Compare this to Waking the Dead, say, the UK’s nearest equivalent, and there you often find the character dynamics being for more interesting than the cases they’re investigating, not the other way around.) In other words, all you need to know about Grave Danger is contained in its 82-minute running time: one of the team has been kidnapped, and the rest try to find him, it’s as simple as that. To add some prettier visuals/more sadistic edge (delete as applicable) he’s been placed in a glass coffin and given only a limited air supply for added suspense.

Tarantino fans will of course recognise the coffin idea as having been present in Kill Bill Vol. 2 and there is a clear case of the director being accommodated by the show’s writers. Though he only came up with the storyline, we are continually faced with elements best described as Tarantino-esque. There are various pop cultural references, a Dukes of Hazzard board game, stars from the past making obscure cameos (quite what Tony Curtis is doing here is otherwise unexplained) and the fact that these characters, hitherto restricted for five years to talking almost solely about their cases, are allowed to banter and even have the odd monologue.

So is the series accommodating of all this? Actually, it’s far better than you’d imagine. Both CSI and the majority of Tarantino’s efforts are essentially empty experiences. Remove the convoluted cases from the former and the various homages from the latter and all you really have is a series of flashy set pieces. In this respect CSI can be quite easily manipulated into other areas, and it produces some odd effects. The greater emphasis on the characters at the very least nods towards some kind of emotional content, though it has to be said that choice of who gets kidnapped is a largely inconsequential one. Certainly, Eads gives a fine, panicky performance and screams extremely well, but – as one of the plot points brings up – it really could have been anyone in that glass coffin.

That said, in being the confined Eads does avoid most of the dialogue, and in this respect Tarantino does prove to be an ill-fit. Personally speaking, I’ve always had a problem with his dialogue inasmuch as it can be so interchangeable. He’s admitted himself that Reservoir Dogs went through a process in the various draft stages where characters swapped their lines around, and the same could also be true of his oeuvre as a whole. Thus David Carradine’s superhero speech in Kill Bill Vol. 2 isn’t that far removed from the anecdote Tarantino himself delivers in Four Rooms. Likewise, that monologue apes the ‘Like a Virgin’ chatter in Reservoir Dogs, which itself isn’t all that different from the MacDonald’s banter in Pulp Fiction. The simple fact is that all of these could have been spoken by the same and it’s a problem which now infects CSI. Indeed, after sticking with these characters over five seasons, it seems somewhat odd to hear them coming across all Tarantino-esque: Gary Dourdan suddenly starts acting like a low-rent Samuel L. Jackson, plus there’s this awful “Poncho” business, apparently the nickname of Eads’ character, though somehow we’ve failed to miss this in over 100 episodes.

But then this is just another contrivance in a series which has been governed by them. As each episode always comes down to the case, everything that gains a mention is always of the utmost importance – nothing extraneous ever gets through. Grave Danger, however, is a two-part tale and as such a little extra breathing room is provided. Certainly, it shouldn’t be considered a movie despite its director, but it is a twistier, tauter affair (we’re in the coffin for much longer than a normal episode would allow for, therefore tightening up the suspense) and the structure does allow for a smart cliffhanger at the halfway point. Moreover, Tarantino also brings some added cinematic flavour. Whereas the series has always paid great attention to the photography, but remained fairly sober shot-wise, here the format gets enlivened by a snappier editing style and the deployment of long takes which add to the pace without ever drawing attention to themselves. Sadly, we’re not free of the sheer obviousness which blights much of the series (early on Dourdan remarks “There was some kind of large vehicle here” which cues a shot of a large vehicle), though Tarantino is able to smuggle in a bizarre, black and white dream sequence and some fine mordant wit (Peterson’s line about biting ants being a particular standout).

What we have then is a piece of interest to both CSI and Tarantino fans. On the one hand it is able to loosen up the series a little, and other it sees the director tightening his reins somewhat – which, coming after the epic mess of Kill Bill, is really quite pleasurable. So is it deserving of an individual release? Perhaps not. Just as his ER episode is much better suited nestled amongst the rest of that show’s first season, so too Grave Danger will prove a fine way to conclude the fifth CSI collection. Then again, if that season’s dramatic arc can be concluded here with a single, almost throwaway line of dialogue, perhaps not?

The Disc

Grave Danger continues Momentum’s fine handling of CSI on DVD. Both episodes are transferred anamorphically at a ratio of 1.78:1 and demonstrate nothing discernible in the way of damage. The colours are strong, especially the blacks – seemingly a favourite of CSI’s directors of photography – and the clarity equally fine. Indeed, the overall quality is easily the equal of its original broadcasts, if not better. As for the soundtrack we are offered a DD5.1 mix which proves suitable atmospheric. The dialogue is kept largely to the front channels, with the rear speakers utilised primarily for the scoring and occasional sound effect. Note, however, that the Who – providers of the theme song – sound a little odd in 5.1.

The discs extras amount to two full length episodes, which would suggest that Momentum are targeting the Tarantino fans with this release and hoping that they’ll branch out to the series’ boxed sets. Thus we get the very first CSI, plus the ‘Golden Parachute’ episode which opened CSI Miami (not the crossover episode from the original show which introduced the characters). In both cases, the presentation of each is identical to that on the series DVDs (i.e. CSI comes in the 4:3 ratio and without the Who providing the theme owing to music rights issues, whilst CSI Miami is 1.78:1 anamorphic and looking the much better of the two). Those wishing to know more about either series can click on Eamonn’s following reviews: the original CSI and CSI Miami.

As with the two main episodes, both of these additions come with optional English hard of hearing subtitles.

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