Monday 4 February 2008

Death Sentence (2007)

Monday 4 February 2008
Director: James Whan
Writer: Ian Jeffers (based on the novel by Brian Garfield)

Cast: Kevin Bacon (Nick Hume), Garrett Hedlund (Billy Darley), Kelly Preston (Helen Hume), John Goodman (Bones Darley), Yorgo Constantine (Michael Behring), Aisha Tyler (Detective Jessica Wallis), Matt O'Leary (Joe Darley), Leigh Whannell (Spink), Stuart Lafferty (Brendan Hume) & Jordan Garrett (Lucas Hume)

A father decides to dispense vigilante justice after his teenage son is killed in cold blood by a ruthless street gang...

After the surprise phenomenon of Saw (2004), director James Whan wisely took a supporting role on the progressively worse sequels as a producer, opting instead to bide his time before moving onto Dead Silence (2007). Unfortunately, that ventriloquist dummy horror was a box-office dud, yanked from cinemas after a few weeks of release...

In the same year, Whan repackaged classic vigilante thriller Death Wish (1974) for modern audiences, working from a script that adapts Brian Garfield's 1975 novel – a sequel to Garfield's 1972 novel Death Wish. The result was this: Death Sentence.

Stepping into the spiritual shoes of Charles Bronson is Kevin Bacon, as family man Nick Hume – father of two ("golden boy" Brendan and sidelined Lucas), and husband to Helen (Kelly Preston). The Humes are the archetypal all-American family, exemplified through the film's opening use of Hume home-video highlights.

Their cosy world is torn apart one fateful night, when Nick is driving Brendan home from ice hockey and stops to refill his car in a bad neighbourhood's gas station. It's here that Brendan finds himself in the middle of a robbery by a gang of hoodlums, which is actually an initiation ceremony for Joe Darley (Matt O'Leary) – who viciously slashes Brendan's throat to gain their "acceptance".

In typical vigilante film formula, Joe is apprehended by police, but devastated Nick is angry he'll likely only serve 3-5 years in prison for his crime. Boiling with rage at the inevitable injustice of the situation, he withdraws his eye-witness testimony, but secretly vows to avenge his son's death himself...

So far, so good. Death Sentence is fairly stable in its opening, thanks to the magnetism of Bacon and an unsettling murder that pushes the right buttons. The stage looks set for an enjoyable revenge thriller; one that won't contain an ounce of originality, but should survive on Bacon's committed performance and a series of dark-hearted kills...

Unfortunately, director Whan is only capable of delivering a fitfully entertaining movie that makes big errors in judgement. Bacon narrowly stops it from going completely off-the-rails in the developmental middle, but once the film takes an unpredicted twist into a real living nightmare... Nick's "rebirth" as a cold-blooded killer (a la Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver – note the homages), is one step too far. The film sputters and dies as it wallows in its ugliness -- which is meant to be thrillingly nihilistic, but just comes across as torturous, tedious and nasty.

It's also increasingly difficult to maintain sympathy Nick, as his actions only make matters worse (and then some!), yet the film is scared to actually have Nick face the consequences of his actions. Indeed, Death Sentence ends on a totally ambiguous note – unwilling to show the more realistic denouement of Nick being ostracized from his surviving family and thrown into jail...

I can see why Whan was attracted to this film, but it takes more skill to craft a vigilante movie than he has at his disposal. There are some moments when the raw horror and unfairness of the Hume's loss works quite well, but it soon gives way to a simple "kill or be killed" mentality -- which gets progressively more dumb.

Are there positives? Well, yes. Kevin Bacon has always been an underrated character actor, and he's perfectly capable and compelling in the first half as the grieving/vengeful father. But even he can't make Nick's descent into a shaven-headed terminator particularly believable or engaging.

There's also one decent sequence: where Nick is attacked and pursued by a gang across town, down alleyways, through a kitchen, and eventually around a multi-storey car park. It's fast, frantic, scary, tense, and benefits from long takes and a palpable sense of threat -- culminating in a silly-but-fun fight in a runaway car...

Overall though, what begins as a solid-but-uninspired "remake" of Death Wish, slowly flatlines into an implausible, nasty, insensitive mess. The film's villain is also little more than a street punk, played by Garrett Hedlund. Death Sentence has an agreeably pulpy, vengeful premise as its starting point... but James Whan lacks the finesse and storytelling craft to make any of it count for much.

20th Century Fox
110 minutes

PICTURE: 2.35:1 | SOUND: DTS / Dolby Digital |