Death Sentence (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Death Sentence is Death Wish for the 2000s. However, in place of the slow-burn intensity of Charles Bronson, we have the guilt-riddled stylings of Kevin Bacon. It's easy enough to guess at what director James Wan was trying for with Death Sentence. Unfortunately, the result is such a mish-mash of conflicting tones and ideas that it doesn't play well on any level. It's too pretentious and slow-moving to work as an action movie or a thriller, and it's too over-the-top and at times campy to be effective as a drama. Elements of the one approach conflict with those of the other and the movie ends up failing in a number of ways.

A little background first, to connect Bronson to Bacon. Brian Garfield was the author of Death Wish and Death Sentence. Both were pulp thrillers, and the latter, released in 1975, was a sequel to the former. The movies do not share this close a kinship, especially considering that Death Sentence the movie has almost nothing to do with Death Sentence the novel (other than the title and the broad thematic content) but it's clear - despite the pretensions of the 2007 feature - they are cut from the same whole cloth. Death Wish has taken its share of knocks over the years but at least it doesn't pretend it's something more important and meaningful than it is - a mistake made by Death Sentence to its detriment.

Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, a vice president for a major insurance company. His home life is nearly ideal - he has a loving wife, Helen (Kelly Preston), and two sons: Lucas (Jordan Garrett) and Brendan (Stuart Lafferty). Brendan is a hockey player with a bright future until one night he is slain by a punk named Joe Darley (Matt O'Leary) as part of a gang initiation rite. Nick, who witnesses the murder, picks Joe out of a line-up, then recants when he learns that the plea bargain will only net a few years of jail time. He lets Joe go free so he can track him down and kill him. Instead of bringing relief and vindication, however, Nick's actions start a war between himself and the gang - a war in which he is outnumbered. The police are also not sympathetic. As the situation worsens, Nick finds his options to end the bloodshed whittled down to one.

The general goal of most revenge-based motion pictures is to offer the viewer a visceral satisfaction as the good guy eliminates that bad guys. It's a relatively straightforward formula, but Wan wants something more here. To that end, he makes Hume a flawed character and introduces a significant moral component to his actions. Yet, for all the film's posturing about what's right and what's wrong, it all comes down to a showdown that involves lots of firepower. Before it reaches that point, the picture tries to be dramatically compelling, but many of the intended "powerful" sequences are tedious. Unfortunately, the serious aspects are undermined by scenes that verge on self-parody and fights in which the opponents turn into superhuman combatants, capable of absorbing killing blows and still continuing the struggle. This is okay for superhero movies but it's a fatal flaw for a something that claims to be advancing a message. The fact that the cops in this movie are irredeemably stupid only emphasizes the chasm between what Wan is striving for and what he achieves. Marrying the smart and serious with the dumb and campy means the union is headed for a quick, messy dissolution.

The film's look is muddy. The only time the colors aren't desaturated is when we're watching home movies of the happy family in better days. Visually, Death Sentence is a study in browns and grays. Even the scenes that take place out-of-doors transpire under skies clogged by clouds. One could accuse Wan of overplaying his hand a little, but this approach, while not subtle, is effective in developing a grim atmosphere. The look of the film promises that the story is not going to turn in an uplifting direction.

Through it all, the constant is Kevin Bacon, who provides a multi-faceted performance. There are times when Bacon almost makes things work, although the radical shifts in tone and pace undo his best efforts. Still, it's an acting job the likes of which shouldn't surprise those who saw Bacon in The Woodsman. No one else deserves mention except perhaps John Goodman, who is playing a lunatic individual lifted straight out of a David Lynch movie. It's tough to say whether Goodman is great or awful but his scenes are so jarring that they belong in another motion picture.

One has to wonder whether Death Sentence is intended as a sort of apology by Wan for Saw. Yet the film's morals are confused. Wan wants us to consider there may be a heavy price - spiritual, emotional, and physical - to pay for vigilantism. He emphasizes this through the tangible losses and internal torment endured by Hume. Yet, at the same time, he wants us to have the thrill that comes along with the showdown between protagonist and antagonists, and he goes out of his way to make the main bad guy (played with a sneer by Garrett Hedlund) as vile and reprehensible as possible. We leave the film wondering what, if anything, Wan is trying to advocate.

Interestingly, Death Sentence arrives in theaters only weeks ahead of the similar The Brave One. Of the two, the latter - directed by Neil Jordan and starring Jodie Foster - is the movie to see. It accomplishes many of the things Death Sentence tries but fails at. It's understandable why this production was dumped into theaters at the end of August - there's no real audience for it. If a movie can't settle on what it wants to be, how can viewers help but be confused and frustrated by it?

Death Sentence (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-31
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1