Death Sentence
, , ,
110 min.
Release Date
death sentence

I keep hoping James Wan, director of Saw and Dead Silence, will quiet his screaming visuals, find a first-rate script, and become the good director I think he has the potential to be. He inches closer to that goal with Death Sentence, a revenge flick, starring Kevin Bacon as a father whose son is murdered by tattoo and leather hoodlums. The story setup is perhaps more “elevated” than either of Wan’s two previous horror pictures, but only because it doesn’t require flashy CGI and manic editing tricks to speed up slow moments. In the end, Wan’s movie turns into a brainless bullets-blazing killfest where hardly anyone is left alive.

Written by Ian Jeffers, this vigilante yarn is based on the novel by Brian Garfield, who also wrote the novel for Death Wish. In 1974, Death Wish hit theaters and began the downfall of Charles Bronson’s career, spawned three sequels, and instigated a whole series of payback movies. Death Sentence follows a similar plot line, pointing the finger at urban jerks (these ones in muscle cars) that blow away innocents for fun. One wonders what happened to Mr. Garfield to inspire such hatred for urbanity that he would write so many novels about inner-city thugs terrorizing suburbanites. Movie vigilantism often finds its home in revenge stories, the type where the hero is vindicated for his or her righteous crime spree long before it begins. This is usually preceded by an atrocious act by criminals, which our justice system is either unable or unwilling to reprimand. Finally, a moral revelation occurs in the hero, causing the protagonist to regret his or her actions throughout the movie.

The Hume Family is lead by paterfamilias Nick (Bacon), whose cushy job as vice president of some insurance blah-blah affords his perfect nuclear family the best his money can buy. Mother Helen (Kelly Preston) cooks and cleans, though not much else by the looks of it. She supports her husband like a submissive, transparent movie wife. Nick and Helen’s admittedly have their favorite son, Brendan (Stuart Lafferty), and then a second-rate number two, Lucas (Jordan Garrett). It’s hard for a parent to justify favorites, but Brendan plays hockey and he’s smart and he’s going to a college in Canada and he’s going to be a professional hockey player and—hey, where’s Lucas? Oh well, on about Brendan!

Needless to say, Nick and Helen’s world comes crashing down when Brendan is killed at a gas station, right in front of his father, as part of a gang initiation ritual. Most of the gang drives off in their muscle cars, leaving only Brendan’s murderer behind to “become a man”. Nick attempts to stop the young punk, who gets away, but is eventually captured and pointed out by Nick in a police lineup. Later, after Brendan’s funeral, Nick is told by the prosecuting attorney that the killer will get 3 to 5 years tops, since Nick is the only witness and there’s no camera footage. Unwilling to accept such injustice, Nick denies ever seeing the killer so he can inflict his own brand of justice.

Up to this point, Death Sentence is given fairly realistic tonal notes, where we believe the Hume family’s loss has affected everyone, thus calling for revenge. Any faux emotionalism it pretends to have is washed away by a hearty splash of blood when Wan turns his movie into an all-out action flick, with plot holes almost as numerous as the film’s endlessly ensuing barrage of bullets can muster. Gang leader Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund) now seeks revenge, as Nick has killed his brother. Billy’s goons are sent out after Nick in broad daylight, avoiding inconspicuousness at all costs. Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler) refuses to help Nick in his little gang war; you’d think the police would at least try to protect him, but you’d be wrong. Not that Nick wants help, however—he quickly transforms from naïve suburban breadwinner to a gun-totting, white-collar version of Travis Bickle, complete with shaved head and insano glint in his eye.

Despite believable acting and an interesting, oddball cameo roll by John Goodman as a sleazy arms peddler, the movie loses us when Kevin Bacon starts to look like Robert De Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and hunts the gang like Marvel Comics hero The Punisher. The action kept me mildly entertained, but never so much that it distracted me from poor storytelling.
Wan is a so-so director, one who I suspect will make a good movie someday. He seems to have a preoccupation with stories that end with everyone dead or dying or cursed. In Saw, all his protagonists fall victim to the Jigsaw Killer. In Dead Silence, his hero eventually screams and has his tongue removed by a ventriloquist ghost. I’m not sure what the message is with Death Sentence. Perhaps that there’s no such a thing as justice? Or perhaps it’s the script’s reoccurring theme of structure versus chaos—there is no way to balance a murder? By the end, we’ve rolled our eyes so many times it doesn’t matter anymore.

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