Kevin Bacon as Nick Hume
Garrett Hedlund as Billy Darley
Kelly Preston as Helen Hume
Jordan Garrett as Lucas Hume
Stuart Lafferty as Brendan Hume
Aisha Tyler as Detective Wallis
John Goodman as Bones Darley
Matt O’Leary as Joe Darley
Edi Gathegi as Bodie
Hector Atreyu Ruiz as Heco
Kanin J. Howell as Baggy
Dennis Keiffer as Jamie
Freddy Bouciegues as Tommy
Leigh Whannell as Spink
Casey Pieretti as Dog
Directed by James Wan
“Death Sentence” might have been accepted as a classic modern grindhouse flick if any of its inherent humor were even remotely intentional, but otherwise, it’s a mostly dreary revenge thriller with a few impressive action pieces that tries too hard to be taken seriously.
After seeing his oldest son brutally killed in a gangland initiation, businessman Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) declares war on the gangs, but he soon finds that gang leader Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund) isn’t going to take Nick’s revenge laying down, starting a bitter and bloody feud between the two camps.
The revenge thriller is in for a big revival in the next month, and leading the way is this lower budget movie that takes a street-level approach to the genre with Kevin Bacon being challenged to hold together a movie that’s a serious drama with a message one minute and a violent action thriller the next.
We’re introduced to the Hune family via a series of home movies during the opening credits, but it doesn’t take long for things to get going as Nick’s older son is brutally killed by a young gangbanger during an initiation. Because the court won’t do enough about the incident, Nick decides to take matters into his own hands beginning a downwards slant that will turn him into a killer in the name of revenge. Similarities to “Death Wish” might come from the film’s source material, a novel by “Death Wish” author Brian Garfield, but there are enough surprises and twists to keep it from being one big genre cliché, even if the tone is so erratic it’s hard to comfortably sit through as it jumps from weepy drama to brutal violent action.
Kevin Bacon is a solid actor, and while one would think he’d be best in the dramatic scenes where he’s grieving his dead son, Bacon tends to overact and make more out of the drama than necessary to get the point across. He’s mostly convincing as a man torn apart by what he’s been turned into by his son’s death. There are too many obvious scenes to show this, such as when he shows up at work banged-up after a fight and receives shocked looks from the boss and secretary. When Bacon turns into a one-man killing machine that’d do Charles Bronson proud, it’s where the actor truly shines, though one might wonder how this businessman can take on guys clearly much younger in hand-to-hand combat. Nick obviously doesn’t have any sort of military experience, but apparently, a man driven by grief can cock a shotgun like a pro the first time it’s put into his hands.
Completely unrecognizable without his long blonde locks, Garrett Hedlund does a competent job as Bacon’s arch-rival, but sadly, they’re the best of the bunch because the rest of the cast is fairly awful. Aisha Tyler phones in a performance as a clearly inept detective, while Kelly Preston’s embarrassing performance as Nick’s wife mainly consists of one scene of her crying “What have you done? What have you done!?” Mysteriously, John Goodman shows up playing against type as a sleazy underground gun dealer, disappears for a bit than reappears in a scene that ends up being far more comical than intended. In general, there’s way too much forced drama, such as the needless bits between Nick and his neglected younger son that just don’t work and drag things down once the action begins.
Things start to get silly after the gang puts Nick in the hospital, but still hellbent on vengeance, he’s out of bed after being shot and back in his feud. By this point, the police already know about this conflict and realize that Nick is going after the gang (none of whom are ever arrested or jailed for their actions), and yet Nick has time to buy illegal guns from Goodman’s character, learn how to use them–by reading the accompanying manuals of course–before going after the gang members, picking them off one by one. Who knows where the police are during this whole time but the ineptness of law enforcement seems to be more in question here than that of the judicial system.
Still trying to find his feet as a director after three movies, James Wan retains much of his low-budget sensibilities, using a lot of the grainy handheld camerawork of “Saw” but he also tends to try way too hard to be stylish, which often distracts further from the flow of the story. This is especially true towards the end when a violent chase through a grimy warehouse oddly similar to the one in “Saw” turns into a shoot-out in what looks like a church complete with stained glass windows with light streaming through them just right to create the perfect tableau for the finale, which ends things on a surprisingly dissatisfying note. Wan tends to go this route a few too many times, and the constant changes in the movie’s look from one minute to the next just makes it seem that much more erratic. While Wan does do a good job with the brutal violence and action scenes, it’s incumbent on a director to pull things into one cohesive whole, something that Wan fails to do. It doesn’t help that the movie’s completely overscored by Wan’s frequent collaborator Charlie Clouser, a talented musician whose aggressive electronic music works better in the scenes leading up to Nick’s revenge than with the schmaltzy canned ballads that accompany the weepier moments.
The Bottom Line:
“Death Sentence” is the type of grindhouse drive-in fare that might have passed as entertainment thirty years ago, but its attempts early on to try to pass itself off as a serious drama just makes the later silliness that much more evident. It’s certainly not terrible, especially for an action movie, but it’s generally a mindless revenge flick that tries way too hard to be more than that.