Monday, September 3, 2007

Review: Death Sentence

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, Aisha Tyler, John Goodman
Director: James Wan

Producer: Ashok Amritraj, Howard Baldwin, Karen Elise Baldwin
Release Date: August 31, 2007
Running time: 110 min

MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Fox Atomic



“I say who lives, I say who dies.”

The Skinny:
Kevin Bacon does his best six degrees of Charles Bronson as the world’s greatest dad becomes vigilante killer after the brutal death of his oldest son.


The Review:
First - a couple of points. One, Kevin Bacon is an obscenely underrated actor. The fact that he was passed over for major awards for his work in Mystic River and Murder in the First is nothing short of criminal. Two, I am on the opposite side of that spectrum when discussing director James Wan. I am just not a fan. Dead Silence was boring and I thought Saw was absolutely awful. You think it is merely coincidence that the Saw films got better after he stopped directing them? I don’t. Also, I like a good revenge movie. Be it your westerns, your Asian, or your miscellaneous revenge flicks, they are pretty good when they’re done right. But good or bad, there isn’t much in the way of originality to the basic premise. Somebody wronged somebody else and they retaliate by seeking some sort of violent retribution. Everyone has pondered that “what would you do if…” question, so there is a touch of realism that can be felt in these types of movies.

In Death Sentence, Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is a risk assessment executive and consummate family man. This guy has it all. The perfect family, the perfect job, and I’ll bet there is a cupboard full of ‘#1 Dad’ coffee mugs to further validate the point. The film opens with various home videos of the Hume family showing us, in numbing detail, just how tight knit this family is. The oldest son plays hockey, the youngest son paints, but they live in their own little fairy tale world where nothing seems to go wrong and everyone gets along without incident. Sure, as the movie moves forward we see that the teenage brothers *gasp* fight like, well, teenage brothers. Beyond that, all is well in the home of Hume. Of course in a revenge movie, so by standard conventions we know this wont last. Nick and oldest son Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) are returning home from a trip in the city where Brendan played hockey. The gas light comes on in the car (in the wrong part of town obviously) and they just have to stop for gas - right now! - in the most dilapitated of gas stations. I wonder if something bad will happen? Sure enough, Brendan goes in for a drink and ends up dying by way of some gang member initiation. After a brief tussle with the one who killed him, Nick gets a look at the face of the killer. At pre-trial, he decides that he will take matters into his own hands rather than put his trust in a justice system that will no doubt fail him, by killing the man who shot his Pa… I mean son. This sets off a war between his associated gang.

The story itself isn’t the problem - pretty much a by the book revenge flick - it’s everything else that feels off. Kevin Bacon deserves better. I don’t know what compelled him to make this movie. Actually, yes I do; this guy has made a career out of playing characters who are against the grain. He doesn’t fit a common mold and will never really be in danger of being type casted towards a specific character type. This could have been another in a long line of great performances, but alas… As the fairy tale father, he played the everyman with ease. But the rest of the movie felt inconsistent because it didn’t seem like he could decide how to play it. Straight bad ass, conflicted killer, scared father; his performance just jumped around too much. And his was the best performance in the movie. Gang leader Billy (Garrett Hedlund) plays the same cookie-cutter, bald headed, tatooed, wannabe BA that could have came from any other movie or street corner. He did much better on the other side of the coin in Four Brothers. The rest of the gang was equally tired and clich├ęd. They smoke, they drink, they cuss, and they were just too cartoony for their own good. Let me guess, their headquarters is in, oh yep, there it is - the back of a bar. How quaint. Other than a few curse laden epitaphs, they aren’t imposing or scary in the least. There must’ve been a Rollback sale on faceless, dill hole gangsters at Wal-Mart. If so, they got their moneys worth. And don’t even get me started on Aisha Tyler, as Detective Wallis. She is the most distracting, annoying, ill casted piece of trash to grace the screen in a long time. In a scene where Wallis and Hume’s wife Helen (Kelly Preston) come to the realization of what he has done, he is met with a “You are a good father” response from the wife, and a “Stay in the house. You’re lucky to be alive” from Wallis. Poor script to be sure, but her delivery in this scene and many others felt so out of place, I don’t even think she knew what movie she was ‘acting’ in. If you can even call it that. On her best day of shooting, she wasn’t half as good as Cary Elwes on his worst day shooting Saw.

Much like the acting, the direction was inconsistent. There were parts that caught my interest, but the movie never really found its groove. It wanted to be a gritty revenge movie. Then it wanted to have heart. Then it went back. And forth. And so on. Director James Wan went to such lengths to humanize the family in the beginning that it became overbearing, and in the end, I just didn’t care. He used filters to make the film look washed out and gritty, then he hit us with an overuse of color. Mostly red. And a lot of it. The violence was brutal and bloody, but came in spurts (no pun intended). It was graphic, then it was restrained. Almost like Wan picked his spots where to show his ability to direct violence, then let someone else fill in the rest. The best part of the movie was the showdown in a parking garage. There was a nifty looking long tracking shot that followed Hume as we went from level to level that ended in a decent fight on the roof, inside a car while it rolled slowly towards the edge. As I said, it was a good scene but much like the rest of the movie, it felt misplaced and only there as a vehicle to show us that he could pull it off rather than a smooth transition to an event in the story. The final scene between Hume and Billy was an ending that felt real and it worked well, it was just too little too late. For as bad as this mess was, it was still Wan’s best outing yet as a director. For the record, that’s not a compliment.

The Rub:
This was a textbook paint by numbers film that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a gritty revenge piece with heart or honest character study with violence. The acting was sub par and the direction was inconsistent. Kevin Bacon deserved much more, and while this was James Wan’s best outing yet, he still isn’t a director I am ready to get on board with. Maybe he should stick to the Saw franchise. Then again, maybe not.

And there’s the rub.

** out of ****

3 comments:

Tony DeFrancisco said...

I liked it a lot more than you, but great review nonetheless

JD said...

Great review. This is the first film I really liked by James Wan. You bring up a lot of great points. I thought Bacon was good and no one else really showed up. Goodman was good, but not in it enough. Still much better than I ever expected.

Jason Scarpelli said...

I liked it alot myself. It never slowed down at all and stayed with the storyline all the way through. No slowing down whatsoever.