Death Sentence

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After making his seismic impact on the horror genre with 2004’s Saw, there was the nagging suspicion that fledgling frightmaker James Wan had absolutely no idea what to do next. He certainly had found his feet by the time 2010 and Insidious rolled around, but if you needed proof that the director was somewhat floundering, a quick peek at his dual film line up in 2007 drives the point home like a rusty screwdriver through an unsuspecting temple.
Killer puppet movie, Dead Silence was a failed attempt at something Wan eventually got quite good at – slapping an exhilaratingly fresh coat of paint on the haunted house movie – however his second film seemed to be an attempt at adding yet another layer of grit to that already gritty, morally murky genre known as the vigilante flick. Yet, armed with a more nuanced take and with Kevin Bacon in tow, could Death Sentence be something more than just another Death Wish clone?

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Suited businessman Nick Hume has put all; a well paying job, a loving wife and two strapping sons. But one night, after stopping at a gas station in a rough part of town while on their way home after a hockey game, Nick and his eldest, Brendon, stumble into the middle of a gang initiation which sees the son get his throat slashed by a hopeful wannabe member. In the chaos that ensues, Nick gets a glimpse of his son’s attacker after he gets left behind by his buddies as a twisted prank, but is too late to save his son who expires later in hospital.
However, after picking the killer, Joe Darley, out in a line up, Nick is horrified to find out that due to some overly cautious lawyerly damage control, the most time Darley will probably serve is barely five years which the grieving father simply finds unacceptable.
Choosing not to testify in order to guarantee that Dalrey walks, Nick instead tracks his son’s murderer down and, after a brief melee, fatally stabs him to death, hopefully bringing this entire ordeal to an end.
However, while ducking the suspicions of a detective and trying to attend to his younger son’s survivor’s guilt, matters prove to be a long way from being settled when Darley’s drug dealing older brother, Billy, and the rest of the gang vow vengence against Nick.
Thus a bloody game of oneupmanship ensues that almost instantly exacts a brutal toll, but with nothing else left to lose, Nick sinks his remaining savings into buy a stockpile of guns in order to storm the gang’s headquarters of an abandoned mental hospital (how very James Wan of you, James Wan) in order to claim justice at the expense of his own life.

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While I don’t always agree with some of the politics present in vigilante movies, it has to be said that grungey, execution-fests like Death Wish and even The Executioner can have their merits when dealing out swathes of cathartic, exploitation – however, Death Sentence curiously suffers by the fact that its director is noticably trying to rise above the tropes seen in the genre in order to make Kevin Bacon’s avenging angel more sympathetic than, say, Charles Bronson’s hand-cannon wielding architect. It’s a bold move – not to mention smart when you have such an empathic actor as Bacon in your stable – but in its attempts to have its white collar hero gradually spiral into an unending world of cordite and contusions, Wan is still too much of a horror guy to properly carry off his message.
While other movies would have their hero righteously snap and take up the gun the second a drop of their loved one’s blood hit the cement, Death Sentence instead sees Nick’s descent a smore gradual transition, using the violence and death as some sort of viral, Cronenbergian metaphor as it seeps and spreads to his family the more pain he, himself inflicts. It’s a worthy decision and it’s ably carried off by Bacon who, due to the stress, physical changes and numerous wound his character collects throughout the ordeal ends up looking like a pale, cancer sufferer as the brutality inflicted on him – and that he inflicts in turn – takes a visible toll.

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However, this is where the issues truly start because it’s fairly obvious around 15 minutes in that Wan has neglected to settle on a tone for the film as a whole, mixing anguished drama, a fluctuating pace, obvious metaphors and some good, old fashioned exploitation-style gore to create a muddled action/drama that seems genuinely unsure as to what it’s actually trying to say. Literally bouncing from slasher movie style kills (Brendan’s throat slashing comes straight out of a Friday The 13th movie), to wrought family drama (featuring an underutilised Kelly Preston), to gritty crime film (Garrett Hedlund is a fine, if basic, villain), to pulse pounding drama, the film refuses to establish any sort of base line as the deadly feud between this outraged businessman and a gang of inked-up drug fiends snowballs exponentially. Matters aren’t helped further by the fact that the script eagerly signposts and underlines every moral conundrum in a way that’s painfully obvious – it’s weird enough that the majority of the anti-violent cautioning comes from Aisha Tyler’s disapproving detective (itself a bizarre choice as she went on to voice the famously short-fused Lana Kane in Archer), but the film even goes out of it’s way to point out the obvious. “You look like one of us.” states Billy upon noting Nick’s scarred, shaven-headed appearance, marring a rare moment of poignancy with a typically “yeah – no duh”, Hollywood moment.
Wan finally succumbs to “having your cake and eating it” syndrome in the movie’s final act, which dispenses with trying to balance matters entirely and sees Bacon’s mild mannered family man shave his head, slap on a leather jacket, stock up on firepower and become a one man army who is capable of slaughtering and fighting off an entire gang of street punks despite the fact he’s only just booked himself out of hospital. Suddenly able to blast off limbs as he wields a shotgun like a surgeon and out-shooting numerous opponents like he’s Chow Yun-fat, the director gives in to his horror callings to give the film a big, spectacular finish that ends up being utterly ridiculous when compared to everything that’s came before.

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The final result is a movie that means well, but is ultimately as forgettable as it is confused, it’s most memorable moments supplied by directorial choices that go against everything the movie thinks it’s trying to say. Still, it’s not like the author of the book it’s based on isn’t used to things like this – after all Brian Garfield wrote Death Sentence as a direct sequel to his earlier Death Wish, itself actually a critical look at vigilantism and I guess it’s tough to take the high road when filming brutal shootouts are admittedly more fun.
A lopsided footnote in James Wan’s filmography, that thankfully didn’t lead to a death sentence for his career.

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