Death Sentence: James Wan’s underrated gem

Before James Wan got furious with Vin Diesel this spring, he once paired with Kevin Bacon for one of the most underrated crime dramas of the past ten years. The 2007 film, Death Sentence, didn’t make any money or gain critical acclaim but it came on around midnight the other morning and I got sucked in again. This happens when quality if unknown movies sneak up on you when it’s quiet in the house and all you can hear if the coffee slurping from your cup. This is a Lost Boys kind of film. A versatile cast, solid premise, blunt violence and a satisfying if unconventional ending.

What’s it all about? Bacon is a family man who watches his oldest son die in a gas station robbery. Full of rage, he tracks down the killer and takes him out. Unfortunately for this ordinary guy, that guy’s brother is a well known criminal who goes after Bacon’s family, promising the guy a…wait for it…death sentence.

Why is this movie so good? The actors really dig into a familiar premise and give it their all. This is Kevin Bacon’s best work in the last decade. You won’t see this much depth in his work outside of a few episodes from Season 1 of The Following or the sneaky good horror thriller, Stir of Echoes. Bacon’s Nick Hume doesn’t have any fighting ability and barely knows how to hold a gun in the first part of the film. He slowly changes from one type of person to another type of person throughout the course of the film. It’s all about what you would do if your family was seriously harmed and you saw the wrong in front of you. How far would you go and would you change in the process?

Nick is a family guy who seems cut off from the dangerous parts of the world in the beginning. On the way home from his son’s hockey game, he stops for gas in the worst part of town and is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Something terrible happens and it changes him. Bacon’s work is marvelous here because he has to play a few different shades. Innocent, harmless, ruthless and finally, murderous. The movie, written by Ian McKenzie Jeffers based off Brian Garfield’s novel, doesn’t avoid the effect it has on everyone around him. Here, revenge is treated like a grenade. The more Nick pushes for vengeance, the more people close to him he sees harmed. Wan and the producers don’t mishandle that part. They invest in it unlike most films and it feels real, especially due to the chemistry Bacon has with Kelly Preston, who plays his wife.

Wan doesn’t skimp on the action here either and it’s brutal and utterly realistic. Shooters actually miss with their weapons and the fights are messy in a visceral way. We don’t see Bacon instantly turn into a badass and throw Van Damme kicks and pick up a shotgun and flip it around like Arnold’s Terminator. He is a fish out of water thrown into a violent world that he helped produce. There’s a shootout in his home, a parking lot faceoff(Wan really loves these) and a finale set inside an abandoned church because why not, where there is a church the devil is close by anyway. This is a movie from the guy who got famous with a little horror film called Saw and from the novelist who gave us Death Wish.


It also helps to have a really good cast that seems fit for their roles. Garrett Hedlund may be best known for the horrible Tron remake and his lame duck brother in John Singleton’s Four Brothers, but he’s a gifted actor and can be great when put in the right role. He digs his teeth into young Billy Darling, and doesn’t just produce a cardboard box villain. Hedlund creates this vengeful young man who loses the best family he has and must respond in a horrible way. He shaved his head, grew a mustache, and walks and talks like a man with no fear. It’s old school territory with authenticity.

Aisha Tyler(you know her as the woman who drives FX’s Archer crazy) chimes in as a cop on Bacon’s trail and John Goodman has the two scene juicy cameo as the gun salesman who could be more. Goodman has the best lines of the film and is only in it for 7 minutes. Looking at Bacon after handing him guns, Goodman quips, “Take that gun and go to the desert and start your own Holy War. You’re a cash customer, and you got a killing way about you.”

Hume and Darling are two completely different men who collide with each other on one fateful night at a gas station and the movie is a result. As Darling tells him in the end, “Look at you. You look like one of us. Look what I made you.” The movie never loses sight of what it is and the message it’s trying to get across. Revenge isn’t always ideal and has consequences but it’s a real thing because humans are flawed and make emotional irrational decisions.

If your son dies in a horrible way and you know exactly who did it, what would you do? Tell the cops, hope they get it right and sit it out. Death Sentence is a far fetched action film, but it doesn’t forget about real questions like the one posed above. What would you do? Are you sure?

The movie isn’t perfect. There are instances where the police became useless and way too far behind the main protagonist and his prey, which will make you roll your eyes a bit. There are lots of improbable action sequences that challenge the realistic grounds the film seems to live on. However, the movie is meant to be an action thriller with dramatic elements and a human frailty threat running throughout it. Wan’s violence is a heightened variety but still thrills.

You’ll feel every hit and every bullet fired and even appreciate the slow and calming ending scene with Hedlund and Bacon, and then Bacon at his home. It’s not exactly what you would expect from this kind of film, but the ending put it on another level for me. It circles back to what drove the actions of the entire film. Family, and what we would do if they were taken from us.

Death Sentence has it’s guilty pleasures, but he hits the hardest with its realistic themes of revenge, vengeance and the cost of an eye for an eye.

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