Death Sentence / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | August 31, 2007 | Comments ()
Like anyone with an appreciation for simple Hollywood endurance, I like Kevin Bacon. He’s managed to hang around for 30 years and 63 roles without really pissing anyone off, and there’s something to be said for that (I’m also quite proud — having played a crowd scene extra in a bad film called End of the Line — to say that I’m exactly one degree from Kevin Bacon). He’s had some higher-profile crap (Hollow Man); he’s great in ensembles (A Few Good Men, JFK, Mystic River, Sleepers, Flatliners, Apollo 13); he’s had a few stand-out performances in otherwise mediocre flicks (Murder in the First, A River Wild, The Woodsmen); and he’s outright won us over a couple of times (Footloose, Wild Things). But what’s really cool about Bacon, if you discount his mediocre bar band, is that there’s no stigma attached to him — he’s the perfect guy to cast if you want your movie to speak for itself; Bacon won’t hurt it, and chances are, he’s not going to help it all that much either, at least in terms of box office. (It’s a shame, though, that in his old age, Bacon looks like he’s been beaten with the Ethan Hawke meth stick). Of course, if your movie sucks, Kevin Bacon isn’t going to do a lot to disguise the fact; there’s only so much the star of The Air Up There and He Said, She Said can do. Too bad for Death Sentence.
But, despite my dislike for director James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence), I was all-too-willing to give Death Sentence a shot. Besides, after Balls of Fury, I had a little bloodthirst in me; on the drive to the theater, I could feel my pulse quicken a little imagining Dan Fogler as one of the film’s many victims. I’d hoped that Wan would come up with a creative way to kill someone with a ping pong ball — bonus points for prolonged torture.
And, thanks to Bacon, I actually hung with Death Sentence for nearly an hour. It started out competent enough: Nick Hume (Bacon), a conservative, white-collar risk assessment specialist, witnesses his son’s brutal death after a gang member slashes his throat with a machete as part of an initiation rite. Hume, not satisfied with the inadequate brand of justice the legal system doles out, decides to take matters into his own hands and stab his son’s killer to death, a reasonably plausible scenario — it felt like a fifth-rate hatchet variation of In the Bedroom, but I could get behind the motivation, even if the dialogue was a little on the painful side (“witless and scared shitless”).
But, with this son’s killer disposed of within the first 20 minutes of Death Sentence, you could sort of see Arthur Fonzarelli in his leather jacket and short-shorts, getting ready to strap on a set of skis. Naturally, the deceased’s former gang members are not keen on having one of their own suffer the indignity of a knife in his chest, so they plot to kill Hume and, thanks to the unholy levels of police incompetence, the narrative continues to plod forward, leaving behind the smaller, more intimate substandard tale of grief and revenge in favor of a substandard Bronsonesque vigilante thriller (the film, after all, is adapted from a Brian Garfield novel, who wrote Death Wish).
And, still, I was totally willing to go along with Death Sentence, even after Nick Hume morphs into an unhinged D-FENS, because mild-mannered Kevin Bacon goes all Jason Bourne and slams a gangsters head in a car door repeatedly. And I, if anything, am I sucker for seeing a guy get his head slammed in a car door and tossed off a parking garage roof. It’s formulaic as hell, there’s nothing particularly inventive going on, and it’s about as smart as a cellophane spatula, but if it had ended after 90 minutes, I could’ve safely written that I only loathed it with the sort of mild hatred I reserve for the hiccups, “Antiques Roadshow,” and the Philadelphia Phillies (who are too harmless to get that worked up about).
But, by the time the third act of Death Sentence rolls around, the Fonz has long since swam back to shore and returned his rental skis. Suddenly, Death Sentence turns so sublimely absurd that Eugene Ionesco would throw up his hands in protest. I won’t say exactly what precipitates the tonal shift, but by the last half hour, Nick Hume has transformed from a Fortune 500 suit-wearing VP into some sort of weird hybrid of Travis Bickle and Helen Slater in The Legend of Billie Jean. It’s too much for Bacon to handle, as the James Wan we know and hate finally reveals himself and Death Sentence completes its metamorphosis into a serio-comic movie akin to a Ratnerian interpretation of Tarantino. Suddenly, James Wan’s revenge fantasy is one dreamed up by Hermann Rorschach or a six-year-old abstract artist — just a bunch of nonsense thrown into the film reel in the hopes that the audience might find something profound in the results. But, with the initial motivation all but forgotten, even the less savvy will see it for what it is: A lot of meaningless, no-thrills violence thrown into a stone soup missing its rock.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.