Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) is just your average hard working Joe, a man who has never had much of anything in his life, but through hard work and persistence has started a small construction business, is engaged to be married to his beautiful babies mamma Laura (Marisol Nichols) and has a young son Michael who absolutely adores him. All this changes one fateful night as Wade hears a noise in the house, observes that somebody has broken into his house through his son’s window and chases the man outside the house with his Louisville Slugger in tow. Had he stopped at his doorstep and simply yelled at the man Wade would have been all right, but apparently Wade swings a stick like Barry Bonds and lands a good one on my man’s skull instantly killing him. Thus begins Wade’s descent down the California Justice System in Ric Roman Waugh’s tough and gritty ‘decent dude in a bad prison’ film ‘Felon’.

Since the Porters aren’t working with a lot of capitol, Wade gets a public defender who makes a deal for Wade to plead out to a manslaughter charge which carries a three year sentence with a provision to be released in 18 months for good behavior, though it looks like it’s going to be extremely difficult for Wade to the maintain that good behavior since he’s already been in a holding cell brawl and is witness to brutal shanking on his way to the main correctional facility which left him holding the weapon. This is particularly unfortunate for Wade since it lands him in a section of the prison known as The Shoe, a spot reserved for the worst of the prisoners, which is lorded over by the borderline pathological Lt. Jackson (Harold Perrineau) and his crew of nutjob prison guards, including fresh new guard Officer Collins (Nate Parker) who of course is young and idealistic. The one thing working in Wade’s favor is that his tough upbringing at least gives him a punchers chance of surviving these numerous obstacles he’s going to face.

Adding to Wade’s complications in prison will be his new cell mate John Henry Smith (Val Kilmer), a man so hardened and so feared that the mere mention of his name

gathers immediate respect from the other thieves, rapist and murderers. We don’t know much about the brooding, heavily tattooed but highly literate Smith, except that he’s in prison for killing a whole lot of people and somehow even managed to get himself kicked out San Quentin. The good thing for Wade is that Smith halfway takes a liking to the young man and gives him a crash course in prison politics 101. The challenges that Wade will face on his little state sponsored sabbatical are vast which includes aligning himself with the Aryan Nation, finding himself being accused of being an accessory to murder, watching his life outside of the prison completely collapse and worst of all he’s managed to get on Lt. Jackson’s bad side, which really ain’t all that difficult to do, which will make a extremely difficult stay in the clink damn near unbearable.

Note to self: Try to stay out of jail. Though the subject matter in ‘Felon’ feels very familiar, in particular the Tom Selleck film from twenty years earlier ‘An Innocent Man’ kept popping into my head, ‘Felon’ was still a well done and very gripping prison drama. Besides, Tom Selleck and F. Murray Abraham just didn’t look like they belonged in prison the way that Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer seemed to fit right in. Plus this wasn’t nearly as silly as ‘An Innocent Man’. Director Waugh does a couple of things very well in this movie with the first being that he does a great job creating a very foreboding atmosphere for this film, which only intensified my desire to do whatever I can to stay out of prison. Another thing that worked for the director were the strong casting choices, starting off with Stephen Dorff who seems to have found the perfect role for his acting style. Though Dorff is usually cast as bad boys to varying degrees of success, here he brings a subtle vulnerability, as well as a not so obvious hard edge to his character, a man who is obviously overwhelmed by his experiences but not necessarily over matched. Val Kilmer, as one has come to expect from the actor in these supporting roles later in his career, commanded the screen as the Death Row inmate John Henry Smith and was the character who had the best story to tell. Kilmer, who is entering his fifties, seems to getting further away and further from the glamour roles, which is really putting a damper on my hopes for a ‘Top Gun 2’ or ‘The Return of the Real Genius’. Come on Val, get on Nutrisystem and get pretty again! Harold Perrineau, who has such a young cherubic looking face and happy personality caused me some concern as I had to question whether or not the veteran actor could pull off the role as the number one heavy in this movie, especially considering that most of the actors playing the prisoners in this film looked murderous for real, but to the actors credit he made me a believer. Part of this was that the character almost had a split personality, for on one hand he was a loyal, peace loving family man outside the prison, mirrored with his prison persona as a violent oppressor who doesn’t see people when he looks at the prisoners but only sees expendables who he absolutely despises.

If I had a problem with the movie, and it’s a debatable one, is that the morality is somewhat suspect. Most of the honorable characters in this film were the convicts with the weak moral free characters being the guards for the most part. It’s an interesting dynamic because it forces you to see the inmates as human beings, but it also strips away a lot of the humanity of the prison guards. Again, it’s not that simple nor is the presentation in black and white, but it is there and did cause one to stop and ponder.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed ‘Felon’ as it was a quality prison drama, despite the familiarity of the subject matter. Expertly acted and assuredly directed, this is a tough, unforgiving film which challenges the viewer and has an interesting story to tell in the process.

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