Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

The screening that I saw Kevin Bacon’s new ultra violent revenge flick ‘Death Sentence’ at was playing to a packed house, which is kind of cool because as opposed to the completely dead private critic’s screenings, these screenings give you the pulse of the audience as the film plays out.  There was a particular scene in this film, a scene I won’t dare give away, that I knew how it was going to end as it was the only way that this scene COULD end.  The audience though I could tell was holding out hope that it would end some other way, any other way.  When this scene came to its unavoidable conclusion, the silence in this SRO theater was so deafening that a penny dropping would have sounded like thunder.  I was thinking to myself, while enjoying the silence, ‘That’s what I’m talking about’.  Director James Wan has totally messed these poor people up, and that’s just too cool.

Our film begins with a video tape of the history of the Hume family playing under the opening credits, letting us into the extremely close and loving lives of this near perfect American suburban family.  Patriarch Nick Hume (Bacon) has an important job as an executive at some Fortune 500 company, his beautiful wife Helen (Kelly Preston) is the caretaker of the home and mother of their two boys, the athletic Brendan (Stewart Lafferty) and somewhat misunderstood younger brother Lucas (Jordan Garrett).  Everything is pretty much all good until that fateful night after Brendan’s hockey game when his dad stopped off to get some gas.  Brendan goes in to the gas station on this rundown side of town to get a slushie, two muscle cars pull up, shotgun toting, ski mask wearing bandits jump out and blow the attendant away, and the other members of the crew encourage one of their less enthusiastic crewmen to machete a scared Brendan as he looks upon the horror before him.  Father Nick can only watch in terror as his eldest son falls and eventually dies.  As he rushes to his side he collides with the young man who attacked him, slowing him up enough, allowing him to be captured by the police and put on trial for his son’s murder.

The only witness to his son’s murder is Nick himself, and when the D.A. tells him that the best he can get 3 to 5, probably out in 1, Nick recants his testimony with the plan of injecting his own brand of ‘Death Wish’ style justice.  Nick does just this, but what he didn’t plan on was the dude who killed his son, the dude he just offed was the younger brother of the head of the gang, one Billy Darly (Garret Hedlund).  Police Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler) warned this fool not to mess with these people, but mess with them he did and now the race is on as Nick Hume must do everything he can to protect the surviving members of his family and ultimately go to a place within himself that he didn’t even know existed.

‘Death Sentence’ ain’t ‘Mary Poppins’ folks.  This is about as brutal and as hardcore a movie as a movie gets.  Now the film certainly has its flaws, but what works in this thing works so well that it’s borderline brilliant.  First let’s start with what you can see, such as the style in which director Wan shoots his film with heavy grain film stock and oft times hand held cameras giving the film a very grimy, gritty and foreboding feel to it.  Fifty percent of any film is the sound, and the sound designer was on his A-game with even the opening of a door reverberating like an explosion causing the audience to jump, but that’s only effective if the filmmakers were effective in immersing you into the characters narrative and giving you something worth jumping about in the first place.  Kevin Bacon, who has been cast in some seriously fantastic films, not counting ‘Hollow Man’,  is great as the loving father who eventually and gradually descends into something bordering on less than human.  Is it a little far-fetched that a suburban dad can take out a gang of hardened criminals, no matter how high his grief level?  Sure it is, but it is still just a movie after all.  Garret Hedlund’s performance however is the one that drives the film.  Admittedly, he didn’t have to carry the emotional load of Bacon’s character but his Billy Darly was so vile and hateful, yet charming in his own way and even managed to reasonably justify his actions.  Great performance.

Behind the grief, bloodshed and bullets to the head was actually a social message if you pay close attention.  I mentioned the gritty style of filming, which was not only present in the rundown gang section of town but also in the glassy corporate offices and idyllic suburban backgrounds letting us know how thin the line is that separates us from one another.  The script also hints at the class divide and the chasm between those who are perceived to have and those that are perceived to have not, but it doesn’t get in the way of dudes getting their limbs blown off.

As I said earlier, there were flaws such as Aisha Tyler playing the worst cop ever, as even the slightest bit of police work would have stopped Nick Hume before he had a chance to kill anyone, John Goodman playing a drug dealing gun runner saddled with a completely unnecessary side story put in for sensationalism purposes only, Kevin Bacon’s totally whacked out self inflicted hair cut, and of course the whole super suburban commando dad thing.  But I do like James Wan’s work.  Noted as co-director of ‘Saw’, he also directed the critically panned (as I suspect this will be as well) ‘Dead Silence’ which I thought was brain dead but effectively creepy and scary, and I haven’t been creeped out or scared at a movie in YEARS.  This is similar in that it has severe lapses in logic, but is highly effective at what it sets out to do.  If you’re not concerned about feeling all warm and fuzzy when you leave the theater, then I highly recommend this little slice of brutality known as ‘Death Sentence’.

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