Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
After seeing the ultra-violent Death Sentence, it came as no surprise to learn that it was directed by the same guy who was responsible for the Saw films. I suspect that most of the late-night audience that showed up for the advance screening knew this. I, however, didn’t. What followed can only be described as a demented hybrid of Taxi Driver and Death Wish. Now I know that those films were bloody in their own right…but not like this. Not at all like this. I must say that I have nothing against violent flicks; hell, I’ve given positive reviews to many of them. But this movie was beyond the pale even for me. Am I overstating how gory and violent this film is? Maybe, but I haven't seen this much depravity since high school.
Kevin Bacon (slumming and lovin it) plays Nick Hume, the mild-mannered husband and father of two clean-cut, all-American boys. When one of them is brutally murdered in a gang initiation ritual, he decides to go all Charles Bronson on one of their asses. After a good cry he kinda feels better and goes back to work as though nothing has happened. The leader of the gang, Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund) has different feelings, especially since the kid that Bacon whacked was his brother. This sets into motion a chain of violence that will put Nick into situations that he never imagined (and you can't either, believe me) he would ever be in. No matter though, because this development thrusts director Wan and his writer Ian Jeffers into territory they are obviously most comfortable in. Forget about the scenes of grief after the death of Nick’s son or the “should I or shouldn’t I” thoughts that zip through Nick’s head before he begins his revenge quest, Death Sentence is all about the violence, and the problem is that it revels in it when it should be repelled by it.
I mentioned how the film is a hybrid of past and better films like Death Wish. In that film Charles Bronson is a man who seeks revenge on a group of thugs who brutally raped and killed his wife. The thugs kill, and so he goes out and kills them, and that’s that. There is no emotional or psychological naval-gazing, and the director Michael Winner doesn’t try to make any moral or ethical statements; it is what it is and we can talk about it afterwards. That’s why that film works so well, and it’s one of the many reasons that Death Sentence doesn't. Since it’s obvious that the filmmakers don’t really give a damn about any scene that doesn’t contain shotguns and machetes, it’s more than a bit disingenuous when they try to tack on some kind of moral message, such as when Bacon delivers a soliloquy (ok not exactly because he’s talking to his comatose son) about how sorry he is that he couldn’t protect his family. Come to think of it, this is the least he could apologize for, since it was his actions that put them in harm’s way. Don't worry though, that scene soon ends, and Bacon goes back to kickin' some gangsta ass.
It would also help if we could believe for one moment that Bacon’s character would be able to deliver the kind of punishment to Darley’s gang that he inflicts on them, since he seemingly has never even held a gun before in his life. Yet somehow, he's able to handle all kinds of makes and models (think Travis Bickle) with the utmost precision. Speaking of types of weapons, does a shot gun actually make the same exact hole in everything that it’s shot at? I ask this because every time one is used in the film it makes a perfect circle every time. I’m no expert but I’m sure the answer is no. However, just with everything else in Death Sentence, it’s all about the stylish scenes of ultra-violence, and those holes are perfect for director Wan to run his restless camera through.
If I’ve made Death Sentence seem all bad, I should at least mention that it contains some really good movie bad guys. Darley’s gang seems to have come straight out of The Warriors (Am I showing my age here?) and into the crystal meth age. Not only do we believe that they are badass but they also seem to embrace their badass selves with reckless abandon. And Kevin Bacon, whom I’ve always liked, and who must’ve realized at some point that he was in a Crapfest, certainly doesn’t merely phone it in. From the first scene to the last, he gives it his all and you have to admire that. John Goodman also puts in one of his patently intense performances as the father of gang-leader Darley, but his character is absurdly grotesque and unnecessary. (An apt description for Goodman himself these past ten years.)
Death Sentence could have been called “Father Knows Best meets The Mansons,” but while it wants to show how a good father and family man can become a revenge-filled killing machine (“look at what I’ve made you” says Darley to Bacon, as the film once again wants to make its violence and eat it too), but all it really does along the way is take the barest bones of a plot and hang on one blood splattering scene after another. It takes those great films from the ‘70s that director Wan so obviously admired and ratchets up the violence and depravity to satisfy the hunger of a 21st century audience. It is unfortunately highly successful in that mission.