Director : James Wan
Screenplay : Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (based on the novel by Brian Garfield)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Kevin Bacon (Nick Hume), Garrett Hedlund (Billy Darley), Kelly Preston (Helen Hume), Jordan Garrett (Lucas Hume), Stuart Lafferty (Brendan Hume), Aisha Tyler (Detective Wallis), John Goodman (Bones), Matt O'Leary (Joe Darley), Edi Gathegi (Bodie), Hector Atreyu Ruiz (Heco)
There's something deeply, naggingly tricky about James Wan's vigilante thriller Death Sentence, which puts Kevin Bacon's upright family man in an escalating war with a gang of cartoonish inner-city thugs. On the surface, it is all hyperkinetic violence, building up to a Taxi Driver-inspired rampage in a decrepit sanitarium that leaves everybody either dead or on death's doorstep. Wan choreographs the violence as a combination of visceral music-video panache and what appears to be an abiding effort to make it simultaneously repugnant. It generates strangely contradictory feelings--shots of excitement punctuated with nausea at having felt so excited--an accomplishment that is either profoundly disturbing or evidence of utter incompetence. The fact that it's hard to tell which is only part of Death Sentence's intrigue.
The film is loosely based on a 1976 novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, a prolific novelist and screenwriter who, having penned the novel on which Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974) was based, is arguably the father of all modern vigilante tales. Garfield was never comfortable with the violence-is-the-answer cinematic spawns of his pen, so he wrote the sequel, Death Sentence, in his words, “as a sort of penance for the movie version of Death Wish.” In the novel, Garfield wanted to “demonstrate in dramatic form that vigilantism is not a solution--it's a problem, and tends to destroy those who attempt it.” Not having read the source novel, I can't comment on how well his book conveys that theme, but it is clear that Wan's film embraces it with mixed emotions.
In the film, Bacon plays Nick Hume, a well-regarded insurance executive with a beautiful wife (Kelly Preston), two gregarious sons, a great home in the 'burbs, and a nice videocamera to document the development of their picture-perfect lives. Things take a turn for the worse when Nick's oldest teenage son, Brendan (Stuart Lafferty), a “golden boy” with a great future in professional hockey, is brutally murdered in a gas station as part of a gang initiation ritual. When Nick discovers that the hoodlum who (literally) gutted his son will at best serve five years in prison, he decides to take matters into his own hands and balance the scales by killing him. As Garfield's stated premise makes clear, there is no balance when it comes to an eye for an eye, and Nick's revenge killing only incites the wrath of the gang's leader, Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund), who makes it his new mission to destroy Nick's family in retaliation.
On a purely narrative level, the theme of the never-ending cycle of violence is clear: Each violent act demands an equally violent response, and the train keeps a' rollin'. Central to this is Bacon's ragged performance; despite some script deficiencies, he makes a dazzlingly effective transformation from respectable everyman to a scarred, hollowed-out shell of a man, complete with a badly shaven dome and vacant eyes. Even when Ian Mackenzie Jeffers' screenplay demands that he become unrealistically expert with weapons in a ridiculously short amount of time, Bacon makes it seem plausible as he consumes gun manuals like he would risk assessments reports at work.
The way in which Wan visually structures the film constantly encourages us to stay on the surface, to not sink too deep into meaning lest we forego the exhilarating pleasures of the carnage. Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti (who also shot Wan's Dead Silence) stage the film's action sequences with complex, almost dizzying aplomb. When they're not aping Martin Scorsese's blown-off fingers, they're borrowing from the Brian De Palma playbook with lengthy tracking shots involving complex cranes and Steadicams, particularly in a tour de force smackdown in a multi-level parking garage. It also doesn't help that Wan's envisioning of the gang is so ludicrously unbelievable. Cruising around in utterly conspicuous hotrods, they seem more like renegade warriors from a Mad Max clone than the kind of inner-city youth raised on nihilism and neglect that would give the film a real gut-level punch of class-warfare realism.
Yet, even with its overly stylized look and cartoonish bad guys, Death Sentence is not a film that you can easily shake off. Wan, who helped send the horror genre down its current path of nihilistic gruesomeness with 2004's Saw, seduces you with the ease of the violence, then punishes you for it. He caves in a bit in the ending, offering a measure of hope that feels awkwardly forced at just the moment when he should be delivering either darkness or irony. It's an unfortunate cop-out that takes some of the wind out of a film that otherwise offers a measure of challenge to an audience all too ready to feed at the trough of meaningless action bloodshed.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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