Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
Ian Jeffers based upon Brian Garfield's novel
20th Century Fox
There are two films opening this weekend that seek to infuse their extremely violent storylines with emotional cores and pseudo morality statements.
The first of these films, Rob Zombie's "Halloween," succeeds on a far greater level than anyone would have ever expected in transcending the horror genre by approaching its central character from a more sociological perspective.
The second of these films, "Saw" creator James Wan's "Death Sentence," unfortunately follows more closely the model laid out in that classic of exploitation, "I Spit On Your Grave," by creating a film with so much utter nonsense and over-the-top cruelty on both sides that any sense of justice, fairness, humanity or morality has gone by the wayside long before the closing credits start to roll.
Loosely based upon "Death Sentence," author Brian Garfield's sequel to "Death Wish," which inspired the hit Charles Bronson film, "Death Sentence" is reportedly designed to more closely align with Garfield's original vision for his book series. Garfield was so dismayed by the pro-vigilantism of the Bronson film that he never again sold the rights to his books, however, it's hard to fathom any deeper satisfaction with a film that seems to operate under that all too familiar parenting style of "Do what I say, not what I do."
The biggest problem is that Wan, unlike Zombie, lacks patience and trust in his material. In Zombie's flick, the film is horrifying because Zombie has grounded the violence and horror authentically within the context of everyday life. In "Death Sentence," Wan spends about 5-10 minutes laying the groundwork of everyday life only to seemingly transform his hero, Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon), from a mild-mannered business executive to a merciless skinhead vigilante.
I'm sorry, but I'm just not buying it.
The story begins much as it did in Bronson's "Death Wish"...with the death of a loved one. In this case, Nick and his son are headed home from a hockey game when a quick stop at a seedy convenience store ends in his son's falling victim to a gang initiation ritual before his father's very eyes.
When the justice system becomes unjust, the mild-mannered Nick takes justice into his own hands and, in the process, jeopardizes the lives of his remaining family, wife Helen (Kelly Preston) and son Lucas (Jordan Garrett).
There's no denying, at least from the popularity of the "Saw" series, that Wan's extreme devotion to ultra-gore and over-the-top violence is extremely popular. Yet, "Death Sentence" is nearly indisputable proof that what may work for some folks in the course of a claustrophobic horror film just makes for campy, cartoonish violence when thrust fervently into the not so claustrophobic confines of middle-class America.
In other words, what felt absolutely terrifying in "Saw" is borderline comical in "Death Sentence."
While it remains relatively undeniable that Bacon continues to elevate nearly any film he's in, "Death Sentence" is actually a stronger film largely on the basis of the disturbing AND funny performance of John Goodman as both a father to two of the thugs (Garrett Hedlund and Matt O'Leary) and an arms dealer for the gang.
Who said gangbangers can't multitask?
Much like "I Spit On Your Grave," "Death Sentence" seems designed mostly for titillation than it does any semblance of cinematic integrity or even, on a very crude level, entertainment. Only a parking garage scene of approximately three minutes in length is presented with any sense of substance or originality. Virtually every other scene in "Death Sentence" will inevitably remind you of a better scene in a different film.
"Death Wish?" It's here.
"The Warriors?" Yep, it's here.
"Straw Dogs?" You betcha.
These three are here in abundance, and you'll catch glimpses of other familiar films, as well. In "Halloween," Rob Zombie paid homage to John Carpenter while making "Halloween" his own unique film.
In "Death Sentence," one gets the sense that James Wan sat around one night watching a wide variety of revenge flicks on home video and taking notes.
The Kevin Bacon in "Death Sentence" is both my favorite Bacon and the Bacon that absolutely drives me nuts. I so admire an actor whose willing to stretch himself, take risks and take on a wide variety of roles...however, as much as I respect Bacon's commitment to his craft, it's hard to fathom what he saw in a script so blatantly sensationalized and overtly histrionic.
While Bacon does the best he can given the inconsistent material, he occasionally dips too far into his "Footloose" campiness in scenes that clearly call for something else. Of course, given that he's performing opposite Kelly Preston, it's perfectly understandable if he's sitting there thinking to himself "There has to be an emotion in this scene somewhere."
While Bacon can't quite connect to the unique balance of humanity and horror schlock, the underrated John Goodman has enough experience with the Coen Brothers to know how to go into those oddball cinematic places. Goodman's character is definitely one-note, but Goodman plays that note with the pristine clarity of a Charlie Parker.
Perhaps another advantage Bronson's film had over "Death Sentence" is in a production design that practically screamed out humanity, grittiness and primal instinct. Wan, on the other hand, again falls too far back into the stylized violence of a film like "Saw" and the end result is a film that often looks as out of place as it feels.
To say that I was disappointed with "Death Sentence" would really be a bit of an overstatement. In all honesty, I didn't expect much from the film and I didn't get much.
I expected Kevin Bacon to make "Death Sentence" a better film, and he did.
I expected Kelly Preston to be the weakest link, and she was the weakest link.
I expected to smile the minute I saw John Goodman, and I smiled the instant he showed his face onscreen.
Despite my devotion to peace issues and stance on violence, I also expected, however, to be drawn into the story of a man who was willing to do whatever it took to protect his family, and this never happened for me.
One weekend. Two directors.
On a weekend when violence rules at the box-office, what can I say?
Rob Zombie kicks James Wan's ass.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic