Fox // 2007 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // January 3rd, 2008
"Look at you. You look like one of us. Look what I made you
-- Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund) to accountant-turned-vigilante Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon)
What do mid-winter and late summer have in common? They are both times that movies are, traditionally, "dumped" on the public without a lot of expectations for critical or commercial success. Late August, when vacations are ending, and people are on their way back to work and school, is the time between the summer blockbusters and the autumn prestige openers.
Death Sentence opened August 31, 2007. It grossed a bit over $4 million in its first weekend, and under $10 million by the end of its run.
Now, Fox gives us Death Sentence on DVD.
On their way home from a hockey game, Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon, Mystic River) and his son Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) encounter the dreaded Darley gang, headed by the dreaded Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund, Georgia Rule), when the Humes stop at a gas station and Brendan goes to purchase a dreaded Slurpee. Brendan gets snuffed as part of a convenience-store-robbery-cum-gang-initiation. The gang leaves the snuffer behind and neglects to snuff Papa Nick, thus making him a witness to a gang-related crime.
Dissatisfied -- and as amazed as the rest of us -- with the prosecutor's decision to offer the thug a plea, the heretofore mild-mannered accountant decides to take justice into his own hands and become a killing machine. He gets the gang member who killed his son. And that, as they say, should be that.
Unfortunately, the concept of tit-for-tat is lost on the Darley boys. Now they are after Nick and the rest of his family.
Has Nick Hume given himself and his loved ones a Death Sentence?
I always get a little sad when movies begin with shots of idyllic family life, because I know that within minutes, some tragedy is going to befall these happy people. Death Sentence opens with home movies of the deliriously happy Hume family. Since Dad is played by Kevin Bacon, whose name is above the title and whose mug is featured on the posters, we know he's safe; therefore, we watch Mom and the two teenage sons like vultures watching jackrabbits.
It soon becomes clear that the beloved eldest son is the target-to-be, so when he and Pops Bacon pull into a gas station in a bad neighborhood, and the kid decides he's just gotta have a late-night Slurpee, we know the before you can say "brain freeze," he's a goner.
The "gang" is pure Hollywood fantasy, both exclusive -- there's less than a dozen of them -- and inclusive -- an equal-opportunity wet dream of interracial and intergenerational harmony. In the real world, kids are being arrested for wearing ball caps with primary colors that might identify them as gang members; these guys sport elaborate tattoos, with the same designs replicated on their cars, and nobody bats an eye.
We also know that when the gang inexplicably not only leaves behind the killer, but a witness (Bacon), some miscarriage of justice is right around the corner. In real life, any self-respecting prosecutor would leap at the chance to use this hooligan's trial as a step toward taking down these brazen yet fashionable drug-dealing hoodlums, but the best this Movie Prosecutor can do is a three-to-five plea deal. Bacon morphing into a kind of Rambo on Slim Fast is inevitable.
Of course, everything that happens in this movie is inevitable. Save for a nicely done, but preposterous, chase in a parking garage, there is nothing here you haven't seen. Sappily loving family torn apart by senseless crime? Check. Justice system with its hands tied? Check. Ordinary guy turned avenging angel? Check. Clueless cops? Big check. Aisha Tyler (The Santa Clause 2) has one of the most thankless roles in recent memory as a police inspector who can't quite figure out why every time a gang member turns up dead, Bacon shows up with a new cut or bruise. To be fair, I couldn't quite figure out why a 50-year-old man who is repeatedly punched in the face by muscle-bound thugs would only wind up with a cut or a bruise, but that's the way it goes here.
Director James Wan, whose Saw so masterfully re-invigorated the horror genre, falls flat here. There is no sense of style in Death Sentence, nothing that sets it apart from a routine, direct-to-video thriller. The garage sequence is well done and better appreciated after hearing Wan talk about it in the bonus features, but a climactic shootout in the gang's "hideout" -- which appears to be an abandoned multi-level hospital or institution of some sort, complete with chapel, turned meth lab (the cops would never think to look there!) -- is just bloody, chaotic, and pointless. These are also the only two "action" sequences in this 110-minute "action" movie.
Kevin Bacon just looks glum throughout this film. If I hadn't known the plot in advance, I would've thought this film was a take on the John List story (a "happy family man" who murdered his mother, wife, and children, made a new life, and remained a fugitive for nearly 20 years). Bacon will occasionally widen his eyes when someone points a gun at him or hits him, and if something hurts, he grimaces. As the bad guy the other bad guys report to, John Goodman looks like he's spent the years since Roseanne was canceled eating ham and is grateful to finally have a role where he can spew it back at the audience.
We get a very good looking transfer and a dynamic 5.1 Surround audio track that's as effective in the quiet moments as it is during the shootouts. The extras are a fairly uninspired lot. "Fox Movie Channel Presents: Making the Scene" is a look at the creation of the garage chase. Wan talks about wanting to make the sequence feel "real," as though "it could really happen to you," and I have to admit, the gang of skinheads shooting at Kevin Bacon on a crowded city street in the middle of the day, chasing him into a restaurant and through an elevated parking garage made me think of the hundreds of times I've seen such things in real life. Seriously, it's a well-made set-piece, but it's about as "real" as the flying bicycles in E.T..
An episode of Life After Film School gives us Bacon talking to some film students about "the business."
"Webisodes" are short little promotional bits (averaging less than two minutes each) about the director, the fight choreography, the cars, the look of the film, and so on. Given the wretched quality of the film, watching these after viewing just points out how trite they are. In one, Wan marvels about the scene where we "really see the transformation" of Bacon's character from mild-mannered accountant to determined vigilante. In the scene in question, Bacon arms himself with something like fifty guns and shaves his head. Thank goodness Wan is on hand to explain away any subtlety that might have been inherent there.
One name that doesn't come up in the bonus material is Brian Garfield, who wrote the book Death Sentence. Death Sentence was a follow-up to Garfield's Death Wish, which, of course, was made into the iconic Charles Bronson ode to vigilantes. Reportedly, Garfield did not care for Death Wish, believing it glorified vigilanteism, and wrote Death Sentence to counter that impression. The novel follows the character from Death Wish to Chicago, where his hobby of shooting criminals for sport creates more problems than it solves.
What connection does the book Death Sentence have to do with the movie Death Sentence? As near as I could figure, the producers paid a hefty royalty so that the poster could say, "From the author of Death Wish," because there is no resemblance to be had. On his Web site, Garfield is a model of tact, praising Wan and the actors, and pointing out that while the film is quite different from the novel, "it connects with its audience and it makes the same point the book makes, and those are the things that count."
I don't know about Garfield, but the only "point" that I got is that if some tragedy befalls your loved ones and the police are too inept to help, then you will magically be imbued with superpowers that will enable you to withstand physical violence and become a sharpshooter. And whatever your race, creed, or age, you too can be a gang member and drive a bitchin' car.
Death Sentence is a dumb, derivative action flick with more eye-rolling moments than thrills.
Guilty. And I'm not interested in your stupid plea deal.
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Fox Movie Channel Presents: Making the Scene (10:00)
* Fox Movie Channel Presents: Life After Film School with Kevin Bacon (26:00)
* Webisodes (18:00)
* Official Site
* Brian Garfield Site