Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Death Sentence

Director: James Wan
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, Garrett Hedlund, Matt O' Leary, Aisha Tyler, John Goodman

Running Time: 106 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

If Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs were updated but lobotomized, we'd be left with something similar to Death Sentence, the latest film to put audiences in the uncomfortable position of cheering revenge killings. It takes a serious issue and exploits it for thrills and violence. Some of you may even be tricked into thinking you're watching something of value because of Kevin Bacon's phenomenal performance and your own perspective on the deep issues NOT being tackled by this film.

At times the movie is shameless and deplorable almost to the point where I had difficulty just getting through it. It's an unpleasant experience, but maybe that's how it was supposed to be. But as much as it pains me I have to say the film's almost recommendable because of that aforementioned lead performance and the fact it's well-made and frequently very exciting. But if anyone thinks they can convince me it contains an anti-violence message or is making any kind of social commentary I'm not biting. This movie is against violence about much as Scarface is a "Just Say No To Drugs" Public Service Announcement.

I, like many other film fans, try as often as possible to defend filmmakers against attacks from crazed watchdog groups looking to censor violence in cinema. It's times like this though when I feel let down and they make me look like a fool for doing it. Despite Bacon's best efforts to convey more this movie has only a single message and it's a scary one I can only hope audiences choose not to take home with them: When in pain and confronted with a problem, just pick up a gun and start firing. The message isn't intentional, but it's delivered nonetheless.

It's not that the movie doesn't acknowledge that the behavior is wrong. Of course it is. That's understood. The problem is in the way it's presented and glorified throughout the course of the picture while conveniently skimming past the real psychological ramifications of the situation. That it comes from the same director of Saw ends ups up being of little surprise because James Wan shoots this in a similar tone and style to that horror film. Except this time the story hits way too close to home to do that.

Nick Hume (Bacon) is a risk assessment executive with two sons and a beautiful wife (Kelly Preston) whose life is turned upside down when he and his eldest son, Brendan (Garrett Hedlund) stop at a gas station at the wrong end of town following a hockey game. While Nick fills the tank, Brendan runs in to get a drink and is brutally murdered by a street gang staging a hold up. If you've seen any of the trailers or commercials for this movie you know what comes next and it happens pretty much exactly how you'd expect it to. Other than Nick's testimony there isn't enough evidence to convict Brendan's assailant, much less even go to trial so he walks and Nick takes the law into his own hands, becoming a one-man vigilante killing machine hell-bent on revenge. At first he seems surprised at his own actions and in disbelief at what he's gotten himself tangled in with this vicious gang. But his feelings quickly wear off and we're treated to some spectacular shoot-outs and chase scenes, particularly a heart-pounding one through a parking garage that left me on the edge of my seat.

The movie is exciting and I really do see what it was trying do but unfortunately there's a feeling that there's a real disconnect between the intentions of Ian Jeffers screenplay (which is loosely based on Death Wish author Brian Garfield's 1975 novel) and what Wan shows on screen. They introduce a gut-wrenching scenario early on and make a promise of an involving drama, even book ending the film with home movie footage of Nick and his family. As each scene progresses though the movie turns uglier and moves further away from the thought provoking issue we began with and reveals itself to be more of an action vehicle along the lines of Crank or Shoot 'Em Up, except meaner in tone. There's a big twist about three quarters of the way through the film that caught me off guard but it exists only as an excuse to take the violence to even greater heights.

Part of the problem with this film is that there's no one worth rooting for. Our sympathy for Bacon's character dwindles by each passing second as he selfishly puts his family in danger and we certainly can't empathize with the gang members who murdered his son. The reaction to Nick's behavior from the other characters is strange. First of all, no one at work even seems to notice or care that Nick is walking around bruised and battered all the time for some strange reason. Even when a gang member shows up at work everyone seems to shrug it off as it being "just another day at the office." Does this guy have any friends? Shouldn't they be concerned he's involved in something deep and dangerous here? He also finds a way to murder gang members in broad daylight in a big city without anyone noticing or thinking to call the police.

Although I don't think I'd call the police either if I knew they'd be as laid-back as Aisha Tyler's Detective Wallis. She knows exactly what's going on yet only sporadically appears to give Nick a slap on the wrist and a stern warning. Um…he's murdering people. Shouldn't she arrest him? It's no wonder crime in this city is so bad. But the filmmakers can't be bothered with these little details because that would interrupt all the killings which have been so much fun to watch. There's another supporting character, a sick, depraved gun seller played by John Goodman who fits into this movie like a glove. He has a bizarre exchange with Nick that's actually the closest the film comes to exploring the issues that are simmering just below the surface.

I had mentioned Straw Dogs, the 1971 film starring Dustin Hoffman as a American mathematician traveling abroad whose wife is raped and terrorized by a gang of low lifes. I hesitate even invoking the name of that masterpiece in a review for this film but a comparison is valid. That movie explored the psychological impact of the event on its main character and we slowly saw the pain eat away at him until he couldn't take it anymore and slowly became what he hated most. Perhaps if Nick's character underwent a slower, subtler transformation like that the story would have had more of an impact. Instead he just starts killing people senselessly.

Bacon does his best with the role but if you want to see an intelligent Kevin Bacon film that deals with an important social issue seriously, rent The Woodsman instead. This isn't a meditation on revenge and I think it's fooled people into thinking otherwise because it's a controversial topic that inspires people to bring their own strong beliefs into the film with them. Any intelligence in the film is provided by those watching it and Bacon's dedication, not in the script or in Wan's over-the-top handling of it.

As frustrated as I am with the film it did provoke a very strong reaction in me which is never, under any circumstances, a bad thing. I'd much rather walk away from a film angry than feel nothing at all, which was the case with too many other movies this past year. It pushed my buttons so I have to give it credit for that.

I also have to credit to James Wan for not just falling back on the success of the Saw franchise and getting out after the first film to try other projects. It would have been easy for him to just sit back and coast on the success of that for the rest of his career. He's already proven he has one great film in him, but unfortunately this wasn't his second. Many critics unfairly and short-sightedly labeled Saw as "torture porn" but ironically that label may be better suited to this film. If you think about it, Saw actually had more to say about the value of human life than Death Sentence, which dishes out a different kind of emotional torture to its audience.

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