Death Sentence (2007)

Death Sentence review!Starring Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, Aisha Tyler, Garrett Hedlund, Jordan Garrett, Leigh Whannell, John Goodman

Directed by James Wan

Nick Hume is a guy with a great job, a great family, and a perfect life. That is until the night his eldest teenage son is murdered right before his eyes, a victim of a senseless gang initiation perpetrated by guys who look like they could be members of a House of Pain cover band. Even though Nick got a look at the face of his son’s killer, the prosecutor doesn’t want to push for the maximum penalty because doing his damn job is just too damn hard for him. It’s just Nick’s word against the killer’s and that’s just not enough evidence for this lazy ass DA to seek the film’s title. Instead they seek a slap on the wrist that still hinges on Nick’s testimony, but when the smug punk who killed his son looks at him the wrong way Nick decides to rescind his testimony and allow the guy to go free. The gang of lowlifes actually pull-up to the courthouse to pick up their just-freed inductee driving the same exact muscle cars they’d used as getaway vehicles from the murder scene. With shoddy police and prosecutorial work like that is it any wonder what Nick Hume decides to do next?

Now if you’ve ever seen Death Wish, or any of the sequels, or any of the countless Death Wish knock-offs that have come along in the 30+ years since that classic Charles Bronson flick first shot up movie screens, then you pretty much know what a mild-mannered suburbanite like Nick Hume is going to do next. A stock plot with stock characters that plays out pretty much like you’d expect; the catch here being that his son’s killer is the kid brother of the notoriously dangerous gang leader and once Nick exacts his revenge, now that guy wants his own payback for having had a family member murdered in cold blood.

Very loosely based on a novel from original Death Wish author James Garfield, Death Sentence is a tonally schizophrenic bloody mess of a movie – at times either gritty, preachy, or campy – from James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence), who once again proves that he’s a director with a good eye but lousy instincts. There’s no denying that the man knows how to frame and light a shot, as well knowing how to visualize graphic carnage for maximum effect, but good lord – someone teach the guy some subtlety. No one moment typifies everything that’s wrong with Death Sentence better than when Kevin Bacon’s everyman-in-mourning gives a sorrowful soliloquy that ends with him suddenly turning his head towards the camera and getting this look of murderous intent on his face. Why not just focus on his eyes, have the screen turn blood, and play that musical siren ala Kill Bill while you’re at it?

Death Sentence review!Or how about the reason the killer was even caught in the first place was because he got blindsided by a speeding car? Wan couldn’t just let him get KO’d by an oncoming vehicle. No, he had to have this car come from out of nowhere and send the punk flying up in the air like a moment straight out of a Zucker Brothers comedy. Oh, and the impact looking like it should have shattered his legs and left him crippled for life, his only injury proves to be a cut on the forehead.

And if you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be feeling during the tragically heartfelt scenes – don’t worry; Wan can be counted on to cue up a power ballad with just the right lyrics to make sure you know exactly what you should be feeling.

There’s even a sequence of what is supposed to be a genuinely shocking turn-of-events that Wan stages in such an over-the-top manner and films so overly stylized that I honestly thought it was all going to turn out to have been a dream sequence. Though what happens here does prove to be somewhat unexpected, my real surprise stemmed from the realization that what I had just watched happen was not, in fact, a dream sequence.

The lack of any emotional impact from the fallout of this scene led me to realize how little I cared about the characters in this film. By this point I was just hoping that I’d at least get some balls-to-the-wall action for the climax, and in that sense I must say Wan delivers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shotgun on film pack as much explosive punch as the one Bacon wields. And for a guy shown to have no clue how to even load a firearm (not to mention being nearly dead just a few scenes earlier), David Hume suddenly develops a dead aim that would impress even The Punisher. I also don’t think I’ve seen a movie whip out a hero-prepares-his-guns-and-attire-to-go-to-war musical montage of this variety in a long time either.

Wan clearly set out to make a stylish brooding thriller with something to say about the never-ending cycle of violence and what it takes to drive a man to the depths of murderous depravity, yet far too often all his hard work is undercut by moments of camp that were clearly unintentional. Now that actually makes those loopier moments all the more amusing. There’s just not enough of one or the other to make Death Sentence a fully satisfying film. Granted some of the blame falls onto the shoulders of screenwriter Ian Jeffers, but I’ve seen Saw and Dead Silence and recognize the same mistakes Wan keeps making as a director.

Take, for example, this exquisitely staged foot chase boasting a long tracking shot inside a parking garage that looks to have been all done in one take. Unfortunately, this potentially great sequence is book ended by absolute idiocy. This gang of mad dog killers have the where-with-all to hide their faces in ski masks when shooting up a rundown gas station in a seedy part of town in the dead of night with no one around, but they don’t bother to even attempt to try and hide their faces when they decide to open fire on Bacon along a busy downtown street in broad daylight and then proceed give chase with no shortage of witnesses to identify them.

Death Sentence review!After racing on foot down the city street, through back alleys and a Chinese restaurant, they all end up in a parking garage where Bacon starts setting off car alarms left and right to throw them off his scent. All well and good until he tussles with one of the bad guys on the top level, a scuffle that culminates with the two wrestling in the front seat of a parked car. The handbrake is tripped; the car coasts backwards at a very slow pace. Bacon escapes just before the vehicle goes plunging off the side with the other guy inside (check out the scene in our Broadband section). Given how little force it took for this car to take a death plunge off the side of a multi-story parking garage I can only assume the railing was made from paper. A scene like belongs in a cartoonish action movie, not one that has aspirations of being serious and realistic.

At this point I truly believe the perfect movie for James Wan to make next would be a remake of C.H.U.D. It’s a horror movie that requires a grimy urban decay look and feel to it, there’s plenty of opportunities for him to play with shadow and light, hyper violence is a must, and when the whole thing inevitably turns silly that won’t matter since you’re watching a movie about glowy-eyed, sewer-dwelling mutants called Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.

I’ve also come to the conclusion from viewing Wan’s films that he clearly doesn’t think much of the police. The detectives in Saw foolishly walked headlong into deathtraps. There’s a wonderful moment of stupidity in Dead Silence> where the investigating cop claims he’s interviewed other townspeople about this murderess Mary Shaw and all of them agreed with him that she never existed; this after he’s already followed the lead to the local cemetery where the guy was digging around in a special burial area scenically located behind a gigantic concrete tombstone that read “MARY SHAW”. The cops in Death Sentence make the Police Academy cadets look like the Secret Service. Witnesses and fingerprints … What’s that?

Aisha Tyler plays the detective on the Nick Hume case who, best I could tell, believed police work consisted of ignoring the obvious facts in favor of giving suspects heavy-handed speeches about how violence only begets more violence. She’ll later tell Nick that they’ve got an APB out for the remaining gang members but they can’t find them even though they’re all shown just going about their usual routine at their known haunts – and this is even after the gang have brutally murdered a pair of cops too.

For all its numerous missteps, Death Sentence isn’t a complete failure. I can envision the movie becoming a staple of late night cable television where the quality of the production values and solid acting, along with its inability to commit to being either a thoughtful edge-of-your-seat revenge pic like the original Death Wish or a cheesy revenge flick like some many action movies that have followed, will make it more acceptable fare for less discerning viewers with nothing better to watch.

If for no other reason, it’ll at least be worth tuning in at 2 AM just to see John Goodman’s all-too-brief turn as the gun-dealing bossman the gang members answer to. Goodman is so menacing as this creep I honestly wished the movie had made him the main villain. I was much more interested in seeing Hume have a showdown with him rather than just was watching Kevin Bacon-gone-Travis Bickle blowing away dudes that look like roadies for Anthrax.

2 1/2 out of 5

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Jon Condit