I don’t know what it is about the Labor Day long weekend, but it seems proper that one take in a revenge movie as part of it. Maybe it’s a way to celebrate the death of the summer movie scene, or deal with having to go back to school – or work – after an all too short summer. Whatever the case, There are a couple of vengeance flicks in theaters this weekend. In the case of Death Sentence, the mayhem is purely natural – no whiff of the supernatural to be found anywhere [except in Nick Hume’s sudden proficiency with weapons…].
Back in 1974, Charles Bronson’s performance in the film adaptation of Brian Garfield’s novel, Death Wish, elevated him to a place beyond action hero – that of action icon! Though there were four more Death Wish movies, none of them was based on the original novel’s sequel, Death Sentence. Unfortunately, while serviceable in its own way, Death Sentence is more elevated by Kevin Bacon’s performance than elevating him!
The plot of Death Sentence [which I couldn’t say for sure reflects the novel – it’s been a decade since I last read it] involves a wannabe gangbanger making his bones – getting his first kill to become part of the gang. The problem arises when his choice of victim happens to be Brendan [Stuart Lafferty], the high school hockey star son of Nick Hume [Kevin Bacon], an executive who seems to be genuinely concerned about the people who work for his company – and a loving husband and doting father.
When it appears that the courts can’t really do anything more than put the killer in jail for three-to-five, Hume refuses to testify against the kid and then goes out and kills him. Unfortunately, he was spotted in the neighborhood and, you guessed it, a war ensues – a war that results in the death of Hume’s wife, Helen [Kelly Preston] and puts his younger son, Lucas [Jordan Garrett], in a coma.
In a bizarre way, Death Sentence is an advocate of racial harmony – the gang with which Hume wars is a United Nations of evil, being composed of blacks, whites and Hispanics. I guess the writers and director didn’t want to pick on any one race to provide the bad guys, but it seems a bit odd to see this kind of harmony amongst the bad guys in revenge thriller. They are offset, off course, by the WASP family that they destroy.
The script [Ian Jeffers] is pretty pedestrian as revenge films go – until the last act, when it becomes a kind of Taxi Driver Lite. I won’t mention the parallels, but if you’ve seen Taxi Driver, you’ll recognize them at once. James [SAW] Wan directs the film with just enough panache – and pulls just a wild enough performance from Bacon – that Death Sentence is a fun-once movie.
Bacon is loads better than the material – from his panic when his son is fatally injured; to his moments of fear when the killer struggles against his fate; to the moment when Bacon’s eyes finally go cold. The members of the gang are all suitably, if one-dimensionally evil. It’s Bones [John Goodman], the illegal arms dealer, who’s got some depth to him. His delivery of the line “Go with God… and a bagful of guns!’ that tells you this guy is not someone to be messed with.
I’d have to say that Bacon’s humanity – and loss of it – is what prevents Death Sentence from being just another bad revenge movie. It lifts it, barely, above the vast majority of the genre. Even so, it’s probably not something one would want to see more than once – except, maybe, to study Bacon’s work in it.
Final Grade: C+