Sep 3, 2007

Movie Review: Death Sentence

A film review by Keith Breese - Copyright © 2007

In Paul Talbot's excellent Bronson's Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films, Brian Garfield, author of the original Death Wish novel, says he was disappointed in the 1974 Charles Bronson film of his book because it lacked subtlety. In fact, he wrote the sequel, Death Sentence, to counteract what he saw as the negative effects of the film. Death Sentence, the book, is about reformation and going legit. It's about why vigilantism just doesn't work. Man, did this movie screw up that message.

Director James Wan's (Saw) version of Death Sentence is practically a celebration of vigilantism. Sure, the film hammers home the message that the business of revenge is soul-rotting, but it doesn't offer up any other solutions. The legal system doesn't work. Cops are lazy and slow. Worse, they are helpless. And the bad guys always can and will find you. The only place a person is safe today is behind the barrel of a gun.

Kevin Bacon stars as Nick Hume, a VP who specializes in (or is just fascinated by) risk assessment. He's got a nice house in the suburbs, two beaming teenage boys, and a doting wife. Life is pretty darn good. His eldest, Brendan (Stuart Lafferty), is looking to play professional hockey (the old man's wish) and just might be able to make it to the big leagues.

That all changes when Nick and Brendan stop at a gas station in, gulp, the wrong part of town. There, Brendan is killed by a gang of tattooed hooligans. While distraught over the loss of his child, Nick is perhaps most incensed to learn that the "punk" who did it will serve, at most, five years. Rather than testify and allow that to happen, Nick decides to take justice into his own hands. He tracks down his son's murderer and kills him. When the gang, led by the merciless Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund), catches wind of the retribution killing, they decide it's time to go to war with Nick Hume. By the end of the film, Nick, who has lost nearly everything, snaps and goes into what I'd dub "Travis Bickle mode."

Sure, there's something about vigilantism that is appealing. The audience I saw the film with cheered with Nick blew away scumbags with his shotgun. They hollered when he bashed in heads and sent thugs tumbling. It's wish fulfillment. Haven't we all, at one time or another, wanted to take the law into our own hands? And while Death Sentence taps into that wellspring of Wild West passion, it is ultimately let down by really weak performances, absurd characterization and creaky plot twists.

Get this: the killer gang is composed of tattooed skinheads (the kind you never see outside of Hollywood backlots) who ride around town in the most conspicuous vehicles imaginable (custom 1969 Ford Mustangs), shooting at nearly everything in sight... and yet the cops can't seem to track them down. Did they even bother checking the flophouse on "the other side of the tracks?" Bearing almost no resemblance to Garfield's source novel, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers' script is littered with heavy-handed allusions (the bad guys live on Stygian street), ridiculous caricatures (the gang makes meth in an abandoned mental asylum on the edge of town), and laugh-out-loud dialog (Aisha Tyler, playing Detective Wallis, gets the best howlers).

While best known for the incredibly successful but ultimately hokey low-budget slasher pic Saw, director Wan has a distinctively lowbrow style. He shoots Death Sentence handheld, with gritty lighting schemes and a real DIY aesthetic. There are some good action set pieces (the long single shot in the parking structure is a technical knock-out), but for every good sequence, he's got two or three really awful ones. Anytime the film gets sentimental, the soundtrack swells with ethereal female vocals that just drain away the emotion. And don't get me started on the "rock" songs used to pepper character entrances and dramatic highlights; Wan is not only incredibly heavy-handed but he has terrible taste in music to boot.

Death Sentence could have been an exciting and meaningful exploration of what vigilantism does to a society, to an individual. It could have been a thoughtful look at the impact of violence on our daily lives. Hell, I would have been happy if it was just a cold-blooded, old-school vengeance flick. As it is, Death Sentence is the embodiment of everything writer Brain Garfield hated about Death Wish: It's slap-dash, sleazy, and unsophisticated.

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