Judge Gordon Sullivan feels like he just watched three films. Would these filmmakers make up their minds?
No Rules. No Hope. No Way Out.
You don't have to tell me that the American justice system (or our "criminal system of justice" as some detractors put it) is broken. Cops are human, lawyers are crooks, and the judges seem like demi-gods. Then, there's the terrible fact that money seems to buy immunity from the more bothersome aspects of legal proceedings, including bail money and a lawyer who isn't handling fifty other cases on a state salary. Then, if there's a conviction, it's off to prison, a place of violence which seems to bear no resemblance to the outside world. Should a person make it out of there, then he or she is still branded a criminal, making crime seem the most attractive avenue post-prison. So, you can see how Ric Roman Waugh could have a lot of fodder for a film which examines the judicial system and its effect on a single person. Although he has assembled a credible cast, his film Felon prefers to rehash Fight Club instead of giving us a realistic portrayal (or sustained critique) of the prison system.
Facts of the Case
Everything seems to be going well for Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff, Blade). His construction business is taking off, he's about to be married, and life seems stable. Then, someone breaks into his house. Wade pursues the intruder out of his home and hits him with a bat, killing him instantly. He's charged with murder, and his bail is set at the mandatory one million dollars. Unable to get together bail money and assigned a court-appointed attorney, Wade sits in county lockup waiting for pre-trial motions. After a few months, the district attorney offers Wade a deal: plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and do three years in prison with all his time in county jail going towards the sentence. Because he doesn't want to spend another year in jail waiting for a trial that he might lose (and where a conviction would mean a mandatory fifteen years), Wade agrees to take the plea and do the time. While on the bus being transported to the prison, he's witness to a killing by famous inmate Danny Samson. Wade has the murder weapon placed on him. Now, he's in a tough predicament: if he rats on Samson he's as good as dead, but if he doesn't, he'll get locked up in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), a place for violent offenders ruled by sadistic guard Jackson (Harold Perrineau, The Matrix Reloaded). Wade opts to keep silent and is eventually placed in the SHU, where his new roommate is notorious mass-murderer John Smith (Val Kilmer Heat). Wade now has to fight to stay alive and keep his family together against the intense pressures of prison life.
With its excellent cast, Felon had loads of potential. However, the film doesn't succeed because it can't quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up. It starts out as a cautionary tale: look what horrible things the justice system can do to a regular guy. But somewhere along the way it switches gears into the usual exploitative "inside prison" movies. Much of the rest of the film is taken up with fights and prison politics and the cautionary aspects are abandoned. Finally, the film ends in fairytale land, wrapping up all the loose ends in a neat little bow with everyone getting their just deserts. If the film had stuck with any of these styles for the entire runtime it might have worked. As it is the film is too preachy for the exploitation crowd, and too exploitative for those looking for the next Dead Man Walking.
In addition, the film can't decide what to do with the characters. Wade Porter is initially sympathetic, but once inside he does enough nasty stuff that it's hard to identify with him. Also, Lt. Jackson is an obvious sociopath, but a third-act revelation attempts to give him some humanity. I can understand the desire to create a "everyone is human" atmosphere, but in Felon it just ends up being confusing. I found myself not caring about anyone (except for John Smith), which made the last third of the film pretty uninteresting.
There's also little to recommend this Blu-ray disc from Sony. Felon was obviously shot on a fairly low budget, so this transfer shows all the flaws in the source material. There's excess grain, a lack of detail in dark scenes, as well as some wonky colors. It's not unwatchable, but the flaws are occasionally distracting. The audio's a bit better, with strong dialogue but an unremarkable score. The only extra is a short making-of featurette that features the cast and crew extolling the virtues of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to give the film credit for making Wade's predicament seem possible. When I read the back of the box I was initially very incredulous. I mean how's a guy who kills a home invader going to go to prison and then end up in the same cell as a mass murderer in prison for life? However, the movie did an excellent job making every step of Wade's journey into the SHU believable. The fact that Wade killed the guy as he was running away makes his prison time credible, and his silence about the bus murder makes it believable that he'd end up with John Smith as a roommate. Even the ridiculousness of the ending can't take away from the careful job the film does of setting up Wade's horrible luck.
The acting in the film is also top-notch. I've only seen Harold Perrineau as likable characters, but his turn as the sadistic guard is wholly convincing and a little scary to watch. Stephen Dorff is also wholly believable as Wade Porter. He's asked to turn from an average Joe into a brutal killer. Even though the film does a poor job of representing that change, Dorff is still convincing at both ends of the spectrum. However, the lion's share of the kudos goes to Val Kilmer. He is utterly mesmerizing as John Smith. After he moves in with Wade I spent the rest of the movie just waiting for his next appearance. Because Val Kilmer was so good, it actually made me care less about Wade and his predicament. Instead, I wanted to see an entire film just about John Smith.
Strong performances keep Felon from being just another clunker of a prison movie. The film has a hard time deciding if it was to entertain or educate us, which makes for confusing viewing. This Blu-ray disc isn't terribly strong in the audiovisual or extras departments, so only die-hard fans of Dorff, Kilmer, or prison flicks should seek this one out.
Felon is guilty of squandering a potentially dynamite cast.
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