A revenge thriller is a tough animal to tame. Go too far in one direction and you're practically advocating vigilante behavior -- but if you err on the safe side your drama begins to feel like a flaccid little network flick. Third-time director James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence) deserves some hearty praise for trying to balance hard-edged escapism with some surprisingly ambiguous social commentary -- even if the two approaches sometimes mix as well as oil and vinegar. But "more than half a brain" is what this dark-hued action thriller has to offer, and nowadays that's just enough to get excited about. (Had the flick been full-bore bloodthirstiness, I suspect it would have gotten really tiresome after about 25 minutes or so.)
Fortunately Mr. Wan also has Kevin Bacon in the lead role -- as an All-American dad who seeks revenge on the brutal drug gang members who murdered his son -- and if ever a genre movie hinged on a lead performance, it's Death Sentence. Bacon is able to be "the perfect dad" without being too sappy or cloying; he has no trouble creating a character who's being gradually sucked down the tubes; and once Bacon gets down to the very end of his rope -- he has no problem selling himself as a desperate shell who simply wants some
Based on a novel by original Death Wish author Brian Garfield, Death Sentence offers an exceedingly simple story that's peppered with all sorts of complicated questions. Is it wrong to head out and seek revenge on someone you know is an evil murderer? And if you do kill that person, does it lessen your pain in any discernible way? Or does it just cause you to sink a little deeper into the abyss? Familiar questions to the fans of the 'revenge flick' sub-genre, absolutely, but what's interesting about Death Sentence is how it bounces from straight action to strangely effective melodrama to a stone-faced character study of a normal man who is forced to go primal.
Obviously you've seen this story a dozen or so times by now, but Wan and Bacon do all they can to bring a little new color to the concept. There's a fantastic foot-chase sequence that leads to an excellent action scene in a parking garage -- which is promptly followed by a rather sobering scene in which Bacon's character starts to really unravel. The dual approach elevates Death Sentence beyond 'just another action flick' -- but the tonal shifts also do some damage in the flick's final act. At an overlong 110 minutes, the movie feels like it would definitely benefit from one more trip to the editing booth -- particularly where the lead-up to the finale is concerned.
For all its obvious-yet-entertaining schizophrenia, Death Sentence boasts some pretty solid specs: Kelly Preston does some surprisingly strong work as Bacon's bereaved wife; Stewart Lafferty and Jordan Garrett are also quite good as the teenage sons; and if it's oddball supporting players you're looking for, we've got the lovely Aisha Tyler as a strangely ineffectual detective and the mega-sweaty John Goodman as a powerfully sleazy gun merchant. Garrett Hedlund makes for a more-than-hissworthy head villain. Toss in some slick camera moves by Wan and cinematographer John Leonetti -- and a very effective score by Charlie Clouser -- and you've got a strange beast indeed: A harsh little revenge movie that actually has more to say than "bloodlust rocks!"
Stylishly shot and (for the most part) appreciably well-paced, Death Sentence is certainly nothing new under the sun. One could call it a Death Wish for a new generation -- but I doubt that Death Sentence will prove to be as culturally shocking as Death Wish was way back in 1974. Mr. Wan does a B+ job of juggling the "yeah, kill 'em all" mentality with the more realistic aftermaths of murder -- but if the movie doesn't exactly congeal into a perfectly cohesive whole, I'd say it's just because Wan wanted a movie that was half-fun and half-serious. The lesser moments still work because of Bacon's commitment to the part, and the better components are a firm indication that James Wan is improving with each successive film.