Death Sentence – James Wan takes a saw to our balls

Where do I begin? This is one of the biggest train wrecks I’ve scene in recent years. What the hell Kevin Bacon and John Goodman are doing in this confused, pretentious pile of crap is beyond me. It is apparently based on the sequel to the novel Death Wish, but discards its story for a bizarre combination of revenge and morality tale that makes little sense and is incredibly tedious to sit through. The Mouth from the South warned me about how bad it was, but no, I read Roger Ebert’s review, and figured what the hell. Ebert also gushed over the mediocre revenge fantasy The Brave One, which had Jodie Foster as a liberal talk show host in the Charles Bronson role, to make it more intellectual-friendly. I should have known better. Spoiler alert. When a movie sucks this badly, I don’t bother hiding spoilers.

On the other hand, Mouth hated No Country for Old Men and loves Tom Selleck direct-to-video westerns, so maybe I should have just checked Rotten Tomatoes first. Like The Brave One, Death Sentence‘s only redeeming qualities are the performance of its lead. Kevin Bacon can play oily scumbags like the pedophile prison guard in Sleepers with ease, or tortured ones like in The Woodsman; here he’s not a pedophile, but an insurance adjuster, so sort of in the same realm. Nick Hume lives in suburban paradise, which we learn about through home movies that look like they’re from the ’70s; he has a wife and two sons, and a typical suburban life until his golden boy hockey player son has a game in… The City.

From the Director of Saw and the writer of Death Wish comes: Shit.

From there he drives into an urban legend; on the way home from the game, he sees two suped up muscle cars driving without headlights, and flashes his high beams at them. They turn around, play chicken with him a bit, and disappear. He gets lost, and is also low on gas, so he drives into a shady gas station to fill up before a third cliche strikes. He doesn’t have to wait long; the two muscle cars show up to rob the store, complete with shotguns and ski masks. They blow away the shopkeeper, who for some reason isn’t behind bulletproof glass like most poor schleps in shitty neighborhood gas stations, and his son witnesses it… so they goad a younger gang member into offing him with a machete, and then leave him there… to make him a man. Don’t ask this to make sense. It only gets worse.

Nick attacks the now unarmed ‘banger and unmasks him, but he escapes only to be hit by a passing car. Flash forward to months later at the trial; the family is still grieving over their lost son, and when the prosecutor tells Nick that the killer will likely only get a few years, he sabotages the trial by saying he can’t identify him. And no one has any idea what he is obviously planning. Even when his family finds him in the basement with a machete and a hunting knife, they don’t suspect anything. (How many insurance adjusters have machetes in their basement? I know I’d have a dozen, but I’m a crazy knife guy.)

Why was it my cool hockey star son and not the loser!

Nick doesn’t have to work himself up to kill, and of course gets in the requisite struggle that ends in someone getting stabbed. His hand gets all cut up, too; when the cops come to tell him that his son’s murderer has been killed, they don’t even notice the huge fresh bandage on his paw. No wonder they haven’t found the two flame-painted muscle cars he saw at the scene! The cops are pretty stupid in this movie, unlike The Brave One and Death Wish. The rest of the gang immediately figure out who offed their homie, and hit back at Nick in his office. The cops still don’t figure out what’s going on. Between action sequences we get pretentious, dramatic scenes set to insipid or annoyingly dramatic music, as James Wan tries to make something deep out of this. But the set piece in the parking garage, when the whole gang is chasing Nick after trying to whack him outside work, defines everything that’s wrong with the movie:

Nick is walking from work and we see the one black member of the otherwise skinhead gang (these guys just take the tattooed skinhead look, but are racially tolerant thugs) stalking behind him. When he pulls a gun to execute him, Nick psychically knows this and swings his briefcase, disarming him like a super spy, then runs when the gang leader (Garrett Hedlund, Four Brothers) opens fire. They chase him through a maze of alleyways and finally to a parking deck, where he starts setting off car alarms to get people’s attention, or attract the police- it doesn’t work, of course. No one pays attention to car alarms. He makes his way to the top, where a lone thug is searching, and tackles him to disarm him. This leads to a protracted battle, wild gunshots that no one hears, and finally a struggle into a parked car. Nick releases the parking brake and the car slowly begins rolling toward the edge, dramatic music playing as he tries to kick out the windshield, while also tying the bad guy with a seat belt. As the car inches toward the edge, with the flimsy guard rail, instead of being excited about impending death for our hero, I began wondering what sort of parking deck has a rail so weak a car can roll through it. That’s sort of an insurance liability right there. You’d think an insurance adjuster like Nick would have pointed that out to his employers. Of course he leaps out just in time, while thug #2 plummets to his death. What’s wrong with that? Why wouldn’t he just push the guy off the roof? He’s already stabbed someone and watched him die. There’s no need for that convenient Hollywood killing, where self-defense, mixed with “I didn’t push him, I just didn’t help him” morality.

Equal opportunity skinheads

Later, they deliver a threat to his office, because he dropped his briefcase and they now know who he is and who his family is; as if they couldn’t figure this out when their first buddy went on trial. Inside the briefcase is a photo of Nick’s family with X’s on their faces, and if we can’t figure it out, the leader calls him at work and says that he has put a DEATH SENTENCE on his family. It’s always refreshing to know that movies still think they need to recite their title, in case the audience was wondering why it was called that. Especially in a movie about a guy who’s kid is murdered, and the bad guy is only going to get 3-5 years, instead of a death sentence, which is what we’d like to see. And a movie in which the father then goes to execute a death sentence on that criminal. I for one still don’t know why Star Wars is called that, since it was about a rebellion, and no one fought over any stars. Hopefully Lucas will rectify that in yet another special edition, where Porkins rolls his eyes and mutters, “I’m sure tired of all these star wars,” right before he’s shot down.

At this point in the movie there’s still an hour left. Nick goes to the cops, who practically say “well, you started it.” Cops typically look down on vigilantism, but you’d think when they know who the bad guys are, they’d do more than put one cruiser outside. You know, especially since she knows Nick avenged his son, maybe they’d arrest him, and put his family in protective custody. But no, a cruiser with 2 cops who are immediately killed is parked outside, and the thugs invade the house with ease. Now, a director with some talent can make a home invasion one of the most gut-wrenching examples of cinematic horror, because seeing your loved ones at gunpoint is a real and terrifying threat. A shitty director like James Wan wouldn’t know suspense if Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven branded it on his nutsack with a curling iron, because Lead Thug just immediately shoots Nick’s wife and remaining son in front of him, before shooting him too. In the shoulder. Without a finishing shot. Why? So he can survive and avenge them. Now, in the first half hour of this movie, Nick has hunted down and stabbed the guy who killed his other son, but now he’s really driven over the edge. Now he’s gonna avenge his family like a real movie bad-ass.

You suck at criminalizin’!

When Nick wakes up from this onslaught, and I’m not joking, he walks out of the hospital in the rain, wearing his gown and no shoes, and goes all the way back home. To sad music. He takes a bunch of money out of the bank and goes to buy some guns, from… the gang leader’s Dad! John Goodman, who plays a psychopathic poppa and owner of a body shop slash illegal gun bazaar, must be the only place in town. And the best part is, he recognizes Nick. It’s been established earlier that Goodman prefers money to his feckless small-time crook sons, so he says flat out that he don’t mind him killing his other son, because he’s a “paying customer.” He also warns him not to ask where his son is. Cuz that’s crossing the line! I’ll sell you the guns to do it, but I sure ain’t gonna help any more!

“I will dare to reference Straw Dogs with my shitty motion picture.”

Goodman is always good as a bad guy, but he’s so incredibly over the top in his few scenes that you wish the entire movie was in that tone, instead of trying to tell us that revenge is bad, and that if whitebread suburban dorks like Nick kill street-tough thugs’ siblings…. there might be repercussions. They even try to make an allusion to war, and that war is bad, because people die. Well, yeah, we knew that. But the movie lets Nick shave his head and go on a successful killing spree, ending with him and his nemesis sitting wounded next to each other. “Look what I made you become.” Wow, he even shaved his head like the bad guys! He has become one of the bad guys! Holy shit!

I’ll cry when I’m done killin’.

Yes, it’s that stupid. I have no idea what Kevin Bacon was thinking by taking this horrible movie, yet his acting skills are what make it watchable. Maybe he just wanted to have some fun and play Bronson. Either way, stay the hell away from his movie. It can’t make up its damn mind about whether to be a drama, a revenge film, or even whether revenge is worth the cost. You want to see a good over the top revenge movie? Go see Four Brothers, by John Singleton, starring Markie Wahlberg, Terence Howard and Tyrese Gibson. Set in Detroit, it’s like an old ’70s exploiter modernized. It’s a lot of fun, and vengeance is not without its price, and the director isn’t a fucking hack who should stick to movies about killer ventriloquist dolls and silly twist within a twist gimmicks. I enjoyed Saw and Dead Silence for what they were, but Wan needs to stay in the B movie realm. If Death Sentence had played out on that level, it would have been enjoyable. If you want an arty revenge movie, see Dead Man’s Shoes; if you want an intellectual one see The Brave One. If you want the classic, see Death Wish; the first one is quite good, and if you want silly, see Death Wish IV- the Crackdown: