Directed by: James Wan
Premise: Nick, a mild mannered businessman (Kevin Bacon), goes after the members of the street gang who murdered his son. This begins a war of escalating violence that puts Nick’s family at risk and pushes him toward becoming as bad as the thugs he fights.
What Works: Death Sentence is a brave film and part of Kevin Bacon’s recent streak of well-made pictures dealing with difficult subject matter, including Mystic River, Where the Truth Lies, and The Woodsman. Here Bacon plays a Charles Bronson-style character who is quickly wrapped up in guilt and paranoia after avenging his son’s death. Bacon’s performance is very good and he is jerked around emotionally, enduring grief over his son’s death, then temporary satisfaction through revenge, and later on fear as the other gang members come after him. The film also does a nice job with the portrayal of the gang members. While the film does not excuse their crimes or lifestyle, it does give them some semblance of a family dynamic, similar to what Wes Craven accomplished in Last House on the Left and the original The Hills Have Eyes. There is a great sleeper performance in the film by John Goodman as a shady gun dealer who works with both Nick and the gang, supplying them with guns. He delivers some great lines and adds a little dark humor to the proceedings, which helps alleviate some of Death Sentence’s intense atmosphere. Director Wan brings some very slick cinematic craftsmanship to the film and it is a much more polished and well-assembled picture than other low rent revenge pictures.
What Doesn’t: While it is more intelligent than Death Wish, Death Sentence does not quite reach the heights of Taxi Driver, which the film quite obviously emulates, especially in its climax. As Nick ramps up his vengeance in the final act, it seems a little anticlimactic given the lessons that the character ought to have learned after the gang’s reprisals on his family. The very end saves a lot of this and leaves the film on a subtle if ambiguous note.
Bottom Line: Death Sentence is a solid film. It falters a little in its message, which becomes muddled by tracking and backtracking between pacifist and vigilante ideas, but the craft of the film is so well done that it excuses the mixed message. This is a film that will upset some but its boldness is to Death Sentence’s credit. Those who enjoyed A History of Violence will appreciate this film, although it has a mainstream sensibility that will make it more accessible than Cronenberg’s film.
Episode: #155 (September 2, 2007)