Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Armed to the teeth, daddy's out for blood

Summary: Although director James Wan ("Saw") does some eye-popping work in this souped-up heir to the "Death Wish" movies of the 70s, "Death Sentence" eventually hits bottom. Blame a mixture of improbability, over-the-top emotion, sicko violence and unconvincing attempts to extract meaning from rivers of already spilled blood. "Death Sentence," by the way, was adapted from a novel by Brian Garfield, who also wrote the novel "Death Wish," on which the Charles Bronson movie was based.

I went to see "Death Sentence" for two reasons: a long-standing interest in Kevin Bacon's work and an awareness that a mini-revenge trend has swung into action with Jodie Foster's "The Brave One" set for September release. Like "Brave One," "Death Sentence" centers on an individual who seeks revenge when violence disrupts an otherwise happy life. "Brave One" probably qualifies as the class of a small field, although "Death Sentence" can't be beat if you're looking for gritty, ultra-violence from a director who knows how to dish it out.

Bacon plays Nick Hume, a dad who's living a middle-class dream life with his wife and two sons. When anyone's living a dream in a movie called "Death Sentence," you can bet that trouble can't be more than a reel away. It arrives when oldest son Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) is killed with a machete, a random act of violence that takes place during a gang initiation at a gas station in a bad part of town. A punk needs to make his lethal bones. Brendan happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Of course, Brendan wasn't just another kid. He was a superstar teen-ager who was beginning to plan a future based on his abilities as a high-school hockey star. He probably would have been a great collegiate athlete, maybe even a pro. But this isn't a movie about the glories of teen achievement. It's a movie about the ways in which retaliation breeds chaos.

The perpetrator is caught by the police, but receives a plea-bargain deal for a lightweight three-to-five year sentence. The aggrieved Nick then refuses to identify the killer, even though he knows precisely who he is. Nick wants to kid to go free so he can kill him. In preparation, Nick winds up rattling around his tool shed looking for sharp objects. Let's see. Hedge clippers. Phillips screwdriver. Knife. Knife is good.

This being the 21st century, Nick's violence must be touched by minimal amounts of sensitivity. The granddaddy of these movies -- Charles Bronson's 1974 "Death Wish" -- showed Bronson's Paul Kersey losing lunch after his first foray into violence. But Kersey warmed to the task pretty quickly, even seeking out opportunities to unleash his vengeance on punks that roamed the streets of New York. Here, it takes nearly the entire picture for Nick totally to embrace his vengeance. Until then, each new act of violence sends him into a panic.

Toward the very end of the movie, Nick finds the resolve that goes along with a fairly standard NOW-HE'S-REALLY-PISSED moment. You know the drill. The NOW-HE'S-REALLY-PISSED moment happens when a guy who's taken all manner of abuse finally goes completely over the edge. Nick's newfound fury sends the movie way over the top, squandering whatever small amount of credibility remained. And believe me, it wasn't much. Nick shaves his head and goes Travis Bickle; the cracked main character of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" is recast in B-movie garb.

The supporting characters mostly indulge in thug-chic stylin'. The gang members are bald and tattooed. They're a gruesome band of brothers who are supplied with arms by a mega-sleaze gun dealer played by John Goodman, who looks like a guy who'd just as soon shoot his grandmother as pick his teeth.

All of this is not say that there's no impressive work in "Death Sentence." Wan stages a truly pulse-pounding chase sequence in which everyone's on foot. The action culminates in a parking garage where Wan demonstrates that he can wield a camera with a lot more skill than his characters wield their weapons. If these bits of action hadn't been trapped by foul gasses of exploitative fury, they might have been more memorable.

The script by Ian Jeffers takes a late-picture stab at meaning, and maybe even wants to make metaphoric references to the current state in which the U.S. finds itself. Bacon's character learns that what he calls "the justice equation" never can be balanced. Even righteously motivated violence can result in nihilistic blood baths. The movie also points out that in combating the violent thugs, Nick ultimately proves that he's not all that different from them. How many times do we need to hear that one?

Skill doesn't always overpower the stench of lurid material, and the movie's strongly mounted action can't redeem its blood lusting impulses. Moreover, the sight of Nick sobbing in a shower after he exacts his first vengeance makes you wonder why the filmmakers wanted to take up the vengeance cudgel in the first place. Put another way: Displays of conscience seem a little out of place in a movie that ultimately rolls out its share of butt-kicking violence.

It takes something tantamount to gall to ask us to view "Death Sentence" as a cautionary tale. Let's face it. Audiences tend to seek out movies such as "Death Sentence" to watch the blood flow, not to contemplate the impact of violence on the human personality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Geez, Bob, you're really making a case for the b-movie genre here.

I missed seeing you at Telluride, but am glad to know that you're continuing to keep up with the quality movies that are waiting for recognition.