Death Sentence (2007) dir. James Wan
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Garrett Hedlund, Kelly Preston, John Goodman
“Death Sentence” is the latest in a long line of urban vigilante films. In fact, it’s based on a Brian Garfield novel, which in 1975 served as the sequel to his original “Death Wish”. So in many ways James Wan is going back to the original source material of revenge cinema. Unfortunately the film is all over the map in terms of style, tone and structure. It’s a sloppy effort from Wan, who by now (it’s his third film) should be, honing his storytelling craft. “Death Sentence” is unfocused and meandering.
Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is a conservative suburban dad and husband who embraces his son’s hockey playing talents. One night while taking him home from a game the son is murdered in a gangland initiation. During the trial Nick is pressured into offering the accused a plea bargain. After the killer mocks Nick in court, Nick decides to let him go free so he may inflict his own personal justice. Kevin Bacon feels awkward in these scenes. Wan only puts Nick in ‘half-vigilante’ mode. He confronts and inadvertently kills his son’s killer, which sparks a gangland war against Nick and his family.
This should be enough to set in motion the events of revenge we expect Nick to now impose on the gang members. But there’s some more heinous acts against Nick that set him off even further. This comes at the 1hour mark, at which point the film should be turning into the third act. But this feels like a first act event. After Nick is shot and left for dead along with his family. Nick becomes a 100% devoted vigilante and decides to enact full ass-kicking justice come hell or highwater.
The film is remarkably inconsistent in tone. The opening scenes which are awkwardly shot move between dark and dirty toughness to clichéd melodrama. At the most emotional scenes in the film he uses a series of inappropriate melo indie-rock songs to enhance the mood. Whether its’ Nick crying in the shower or during his son’s funeral when these songs are played it feels like unnecessary stylistic excesses – like a Gun and Roses video.
Wan also crafts a lengthy action sequence which has the gang members chasing down Nick in a parking lot. The set piece is so long and action-oriented it feels like a different film. Wan even shoots a long take in the parking lot as Bacon is running through the lot setting off car alarms to distract his pursuers. Up until now it was a small scale character study, but with gun ablazing in broad daylight, with cars falling off of high roofs, it feels more like “Die Hard” than “Death Wish”.
Technically Wan doesn’t seem to have command of his compositions either. He frequently uses extremely wide angle lenses with odd camera angles. These shots don’t mesh with the rest of the film. A director has to be very careful with changing lens sizes – especially with the extremes – it can take the viewer out of the film is used inappropriately. I certainly was.
Of the 120 mins of the unrated film I watched on DVD there’s about 20mins of interesting and exciting material. The film finally revs its engines and gets tough at the 1hr 20mins mark when Nick emerges from the hospital a broken down man. As he rebuilds himself into the Bronson-esque truely single- minded vigilante we get a taste of what this film should have been. The style, tone, lighting, acting etc that was so inconsistent in the first half comes together perfectly for these 20mins. Wan stages a fantastic gun fight in a warehouse between Nick and the gang members, which is uncompromising and tough.
If Wan had expanded his film using the style of these 20mins he would have had a good film.
“Death Sentence” is available on DVD Jan 8, 2008 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.