Mark Reviews Movies

DEATH SENTENCE

2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Wan

Cast: Kevin Bacon, Garrett Hedlund, Kelly Preston, Jordan Garrett, Stuart Lafferty, Aisha Tyler, Matt O'Leary, John Goodman

MPAA Rating: R  (for strong bloody brutal violence and pervasive language)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 8/31/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Death Sentence resides in a moral vacuum, but it is at least upfront with that fact.  There's no right or wrong in the world of the movie, only bad people continuing to do bad things and good people dragged in to doing the same.  It's nihilistic to be sure and, as such, full of hopeless situations, helpless people, and fruitless actions.  The movie credits a novel by the author of Death Wish as its inspiration, and while the stories are completely different, the tone and subject matter are right.  This is revenge justice taken on by a normal guy who undergoes a family tragedy, but unlike Neil Jordan's upcoming The Brave One, which goes incredibly far to condone its heroine's actions, Ian Jeffers' script lets its hero exist with neither pardon nor damnation.  In subtler hands, the movie could have been a genuinely upsetting study of the toll of revenge, but Jeffers has given us an action movie.  Some of it is overwrought (the dialogue in particular gets pretty clunky on occasion), and director James Wan goes overboard on the faux symbolism and genuine self-importance.  By separating from the horror genre, though, he also shows himself to be a pretty competent craftsman.

After a montage of home videos of a happy family, we meet Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon), a senior vice president at a corporation.  His son Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) plays hockey, and after a game one night, he tells his father he's thinking of going to college in Canada on the route to play professional hockey.  The car begins to run low on fuel, causing father and son to stop at a gas station in the bad part of town.  Brendan stops inside for a drink, and a pair of muscle cars pulls in with a gang of hoodlums.  They storm in, kill the clerk, and then, to initiate one of their younger members Joe (Matt O'Leary), have the new guy kill Brendan.  Nick tackles the kid who killed his son, pulling off his mask.  Brendan dies in the hospital, and before testifying at the thug's hearing, Nick learns that the most his son's killer will get is three to five years.  Instead of identifying him in court, Nick says he's not sure, and the judge lets Joe go free.  Outside, the kid is picked up by his older brother Billy (Garrett Hedlund), and Nick follows them.

What the movie gets right in terms of presenting a vigilante is to make it completely about Nick—his decisions, his own quest to take vengeance only upon those who wronged him and his family, and his own transition from guilt-ridden murderer to apathetic avenger.  Kevin Bacon is solid in the role, especially early on as he manages to convey a paradoxical sense of premeditation and uncertainty as he approaches his confrontation with Joe, in which the thug ends up dead.  His wife (Kelly Preston) and younger son (Jordan Garrett) are completely oblivious to what Nick has done, and he goes about his regular life.  The movie wisely acknowledges the cyclical nature of violence, and soon enough, Billy is after Nick.  There's a chase through the alleys and back-ways that leads to a parking garage, and here, we have a flash of potential from Wan.  In an intricate camera move, we follow Nick through the garage, up a level, back down to the thugs that are after him, and back to Nick.  There's another fight, and in usual action movie style, these people are indestructible, taking beating after beating and getting immediately back up to fight.  The capper to that scene, involving a car slowly backing toward destruction, is quite effective.

Wan handles violence with bloody flair.  There's an assault on the Hume home that verges on physical comedy—direct misses with shotguns, accidental shootings, and breaking banisters—and ends tragically.  The director isn't so sure-handed with quieter moments, filling the screen with unnecessary symbolism (a pan to a cross after Billy plans the destruction of Nick's family), red lighting to represent the evil-doers' hideaways, and slow motion posturing (the worst being an immediate shift from tender father-son moment to badass mode).  Jeffers gives us a detective (Aisha Tyler) to sound as the voice of reason (in pat phrases like "Everybody thinks they're right in a war") when there is clearly no reason in the movie's ideology, but then he also gives us Bones, played by John Goodman, a character just as morally vacant as the movie's worldview.  The movie is unapologetic about that element, especially in the climax where Nick becomes a one-man army against those who have destroyed his life.  A key scene is strangely omitted in the finale, but in doing so, Jeffers and Wan efficiently illustrate that there is no closure in a situation of this kind.

One has to admire this focus of purpose.  It's not a question of morality or immorality but of amorality, and the downside is that there's an inherent disconnect with the material.  Throw in the problems beyond the intrinsic one, and Death Sentence is an intriguing, uncompromising but excluding experience.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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