Death Sentence Review
What on earth has director James Wan done to incite such hatred over his latest film? The Times said “105 minutes you are never going to get back”, The Telegraph claims the film is “literally laughable” while over at the BBC we are told that the film will make you “want to hurt someone. Anyone” and the majority of newspapers echoed these sentiments. Can his new film really be that bad? Let’s examine the evidence. Based on a novel by Brian Garfield, who gave us the original Death Wish, this is the story of a man who loses his mind over the loss of a family member and sets out on a course of violent revenge.
Kevin Bacon is Nick Hume; a mild mannered executive with a loving wife and two great kids living in the suburbs whose only worry in life is where his son is going to go to university. An opening montage of home videos sets the scene as we see the boys grow up in a warm and loving environment. Without the need for further exposition Wan takes us straight into the action. Nick is driving his eldest son home from a school hockey match when they have to stop for petrol at an out of the way gas station. As he fills the tank his son goes inside at the same time as a gang enter the station looking to steal the contents of the till and, as part of an initiation ceremony, kill someone. That someone ends up being his son, in a vicious machete attack. The gang member is quickly caught, but when it gets to trial Nick realises that his son’s murderer will get off with a very light sentence so he declines to testify and he goes free. Feeling helpless and angry at the situation Nick decides to take matters into his own hands and dole out his own kind of suburban justice. The plan is to kill the guilty party and try and piece together the pieces of his shattered life, but as we all know retribution in the movies rarely runs smooth, and very soon the other gang members are threatening his family.
This is where Death Sentence differs from other revenge thrillers. We are used to seeing the avenging good guy get the better of the baddies and protect all that he holds dear, but not here. Nick’s initial actions set off a chain of events that spiral out of control until he is no longer the master of his own destiny and his family are in real danger.
Bacon turns in a bravura performance, a tortured man who cannot come to terms with what he has done or what is being done to him. There are few actors who do this as well as him and few who would show the dark side of his character so bravely. In contrast, a lot of the supporting players are woefully over the top. The gang are portrayed as coke snorting psychos who manage to roam the streets in flashy cars, sporting distinctive tattoos and engaging in High Noon style shootouts without the police being able to stop them. John Goodman pops up as the gang leader’s dad who also happens to be an arms dealer with no scruples, who has no problems selling guns to a man that he knows is going to kill his son.
A lot of reviewers will probably have taken issue with the direction the film takes at the half way point, when Nick shaves his head and heads off on a killing spree. You can almost hear the high brow critics screaming “he’s ripping off Taxi Driver!!!” Well why not? Taxi Driver was 30 years ago and is not a sacred text, and as far as I know doesn’t have the copyright on skinhead psychos. Admittedly this is the point when the film starts to lack cohesion and turns into an ultra violent bloodbath, but maybe that is Wan’s point. Revenge never works out the way you want it to and in the end it will escalate into something you cannot control.
Wan also risks controversy, and earns kudos, for a scene near the end in the family home that many mainstream directors would have shied away from and when it happens is all the more shocking for the realisation that this is not sugar coated Hollywood gloss. Wan is telling us that we risk real hurt if we take the law into our own hands.
Wan, who gave us the first Saw movie and the disappointing Dead Silence, here shows what he is really capable of. He directs at a breakneck pace and really wants to stake his claim as one of the best up and coming directors around. Check out the 5 minute tracking shot during a shoot out in a multi story car park, and try and work out just how he did it. It makes the shot in Atonement look like a walk in the park. When you consider Wan is only 30 years old this bodes well for future projects.
In a few weeks a film about a woman whose boyfriend is killed in a vicious attack and embarks on bloody revenge will be released. The film is The Brave One, the woman is played by Jodie Foster and the director is Neil Jordan. It will be interesting to see if that film gets the rough ride imposed on Death Sentence.
In the end the critics seem to have won as the film has had a disappointing run at the box office both here and in the U.S., and the DVD release has now been put back to some time next year, but I urge you to check it out if its still on anywhere near you and definitely catch it on DVD in 2008.