What a piece of work is man. And there is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Human beings are perhaps never more dangerous than when they are convinced beyond a doubt that they are right. Patience. Penance.
Directed by stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, the story is about homeowner Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) who accidentally kills a burglar and winds up doing 3 years hard time. He negotiates the California prison system as a newbie or “fish,” but then ends up with a mass murderer John Smith (Val Kilmer) for a cell mate. Wade saw smith shiv a guy on the bus going in, and the guards keep pressuring him to snitch. This would be drama enough, but the sadistic Lt. Jackson (Harold Perrineau, Michael from Lost) likes to set up fights between the racially divided gangs, while the guards watch and bet from above.
They breaking things up with rubber bullets, or real ones if Jackson demands it. I found this part of the story contrived, but it’s based on a true story. Prison is bad enough for a first timer who isn’t a lifetime criminal. When we learn that Kilmer is in for avenging his murdered family, it felt like they wanted to make instant bonding happen between him & Wade.
If you want to watch prison fights, it’s decent entertainment. Val constructs a solid and believable character, and steps outside his own skin. Harold Perrineau’s character gets some depth, and his performance is excellent; we just got a weak story, probably to sell it to the producers. It’s a decent rental or cable view, but not very memorable. It’s almost an exploitation film, and probably would have been better if it went that route, with the inevitable Attica-style prison riot at the end to settle the score.
The story is based on atrocities that occurred at California’s Corcoran State Prison. In 1996 the guards were charged with setting up “Gladiator Days” fights between inmates, and the guards had the notoriety of shooting more inmates than any other prison in the country. In the movie, justice is done, though in one of those “race against time” scenarios that are the sign of a weak script. They neglect to mention that it was based on reality, because the Corcoran guards were acquitted of all charges and would probably sue. We’ll have to settle for movie justice in this case.
It isn’t bad, and Ric Roman Waugh shows more chops as a director than a writer, but it’s nothing a rewrite or two couldn’t fix. He’ll be one to watch. Felon isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely watchable, and it’s laudable for Waugh to make a movie about atrocities in state prisons when most people think that Arizona Sherriff douche who feeds his prisoners Confinement Loaf and makes them wear pink is some sort of hero.