Death Sentence

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It has been more than 20 years since I read Brian Garfield’s novel Death Sentence, the sequel to his earlier book Death Wish, which of course was made into the classic 1974 movie starring Charles Bronson. Honestly, I have very little recollection of the book, other than it followed the further exploits of vigilante Paul Benjamin, a man driven to kill after his family is brutalized by a gang of criminals. And while my memory of Death Sentence may not be worth anything, at least I read the book, which seems to be more than either screenwriter Ian Jeffers or director James Wan can say.

Attempting to carry on the great tradition of man-pushed-to-the-edge vigilante flicks that came into their own with Death Wish, reached sublime exploitation genius with William Lustig’s Vigilante, and then went into the toilet with a succession of Bronson-starring Death Wish sequels, Death Sentence is a pathetic attempt to revive a genre that went out of style sometime during Reagan’s second term. And if that were the film’s only cinematic shortcoming it might be excusable, but the fact that neither Jeffers or Wan seem to know jack or shit about vigilante movies, Death Sentence also suffers from a terribly misguided identity crisis. Trying to pass itself off as a gritty take-the-law-into-your-own-hands thriller for the video game generation, it really amounts to nothing more than a thinly-veiled horror film (and not a very good one at that).

Kevin Bacon stars as Nick Hume, a successful businessman with a perfect family in the suburbs. Nick’s world is shattered when he and his oldest son stop to fill-up at a gas station on the wrong side of town. As fate would have it, Nick and the all-American fruit of his loins have crossed the path of a nefarious gang of evildoers, including one thug who must take a life as part of his initiation. That’s where Nick’s son comes in, tragically getting himself killed by the evil gangsta as a means to move the story forward. This sets off a chain of events that includes Nick tracking his son’s killer down, gutting him like a pig, and then being targeted by the other gang members who now want revenge. It’s all pretty much standard stuff, although the filmmakers try to put some twists on a tired genre, but only succeed in making a movie that drags on far longer than it needs to.

Death Sentence could have been a better movie, provided it was not written by a hack or directed with a startling lack of cinematic competency. But as it is, with the exception of a few key moments—namely a brutal fight scene in a parking garage and some mildly impressive splatter effects—the film fails to deliver on a number of levels. One of the film’s many flaws is that it is nothing more than a horror film that substitutes monsters with sinister thugs. Wan, who proved himself to be a director of nominal style but absolutely no substance with Saw, doesn’t seem to know how to make anything other than a cheap fright flick. He attempts to disguise Death Sentence as something more, but it is really nothing less. Fancy camera moves, a washed out color palette, and tons of graffiti-strewn walls may pass as decent filmmaking in some alternate universe, but in this reality Wan is guilty of using cheap parlor tricks to mask a lack of talent behind the camera.

In front of the camera, Kevin Bacon gives a decent performance mired by a script that has him descending into a ludicrous shtick that seems to have come from the filmmakers watching Taxi Driver one too many times. Bacon can only be so good, because the script itself is so bad. As an everyman driven to the point of murder Bacon has it in him to deliver a performance of great depth. Unfortunately, the script itself refuses to allow that to happen, turning what could have been the film’s most emotionally powerful scene into an unintentionally campy bit of crap.

The laughs Bacon is likely to garner during the pivotal moment that leads to the climactic showdown are fun, but nothing compared to the laughs derived from the silly villains that populate Death Sentence. Not since the terrible Canon-produced sequels to Death Wish has there been a more ridiculous gallery of rogues. This is the sort of film that lets you know who the bad guys are by having them call each other “dawg.” With their tattooed faces and baggy clothes, the bad guys in Death Sentence look like they walked on to set from some other film—most likely a bad adaptation of video game that involves street fighters. But again, given the craptacular nature of the script and the direction, it comes as no surprise that the disposable cardboard cutouts that pass for the bad guys are such a tremendous comedic force.

Death Sentence is not a terrible film so much as it is simply not that good. To be sure, there are a few entertaining moments, but those come so few and far between that searching for them is not worth the energy it would take to engage the fast forward button. Not only is the film undeserving of a trip to the theater—even at matinee prices—it doesn’t even warrant a rental when it arrives on DVD sometime in the next month or two.

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One Response to “Death Sentence”

  1. Adam C. Says:

    So what you are trying to say is that you did not like this movie? How do you think The Brave One will fare in the sucky department? At least we know it’s in the hands of a skilled director

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