I do love those vengeance-themed, ultra-violent vigilante movies. There’s nothing like waking up in the middle of the night, pouring a load of cereal and milk into a huge plastic cup and turning on the TV to find a vigilante with bloodshot eyes kicking the shit out of some poor gang-banger. Thank Christ. I found a vigilante movie. What a late night treat, indeed.
Vigilante movies and me, well, we go way back. I saw Michael Douglas jack up a homophobic military surplus store owner in FALLING DOWN, I watched Sally Field go all apeshit on a grimacing Keifer Sutherland in AN EYE FOR AN EYE, and I have theorized in the past that Mel Gibson’s studio contract states that at least once every two years he must play a character seeking bloody atonement for the death of a loved one. And the 1970s (MS. .45, DEATH WISH) are an even richer breeding ground for this often stress-releasing sub-genre.
DEATH SENTENCE, a recent offering from the director of SAW, stars Kevin Bacon as a mild-mannered risk-management advisor who is called on to whup some ass after his oldest son is killed in a gang initiation. The cocky perpetrator is arrested, but when Bacon hears that the punk might do a mere 3 years, he withdraws his testimony as a witness and decides to hunt the little shit down himself.
Bacon seeks his retribution quickly, with an eerie detachment, and the gang is compelled to retaliate. Before his realizes it, Bacon is both the hunted and the hunter, a man who is forced to kill to prevent the murder of himself or his loved ones. Bacon is an extremely resilient protagonist, almost to the point of absurdity, but director James Wan has staged some stellar action sequences that have a tendency to pull your attention away from the gaping plot holes.
One sequence involves Bacon fleeing on foot through a multi-story parking garage, pursued by the murderous thugs, setting off various car alarms as a distraction. Wan’s camera swims through cars and under railings and up over the side of the building in a brilliant series of long tracking shots that add significantly to the pulse-pounding tension. Each action sequence was obviously well-thought out and meticulously choreographed, a refreshing change from the vague, muddled action scenes that have recently clogged the multiplex.
Unfortunately, DEATH SENTENCE does attempt to exceed its cinematic grasp by shooting for pure pathos during the scenes when a bereft and make-up smeared Kelly Preston weeps for her dead son, sometimes in slow motion, sometimes as what sounds like Sarah McLaughlin plays in the background. Every 15 minutes the movie comes to a complete halt as one of the characters takes a few moments to grieve the loss of a loved one. It gets old mighty quick.
Oh, and there are literally dozens of brief, individually ludicrous moments, too many to list. Bacon broadsides a van at full speed while not wearing a seatbelt, but climbs out of the driver’s seat without so much as a scratch or a limp. There’s one example. But you should discover the other ludicrous moments on your own. There’s a ton and I don’t want to ruin the movie for you.
Still, DEATH SENTENCE cruises along on its emotional, revenge-themed core, and when all was said and done, I was very satisfied with the 90 minutes of blatant escapism that Wan and Bacon had provided.
Much like FEAR (1996), starring Marky Mark Wahlberg, I don’t suspect DEATH SENTENCE will receive very stellar reviews after it opens tomorrow, but I predict it will become a staple of late night cable for years to come. If your boss is giving you shit at work, sneak a sixer into DEATH SENTENCE and let some of that tension go. Or you can support Rob Zombie’s cinematic date-rape of an American classic as John Carpenter sits at home and drinks himself into a stupor. Your call.