Saturday, September 01, 2007

"Death Sentence" -- * * *

At around the 70 minute mark of James Wan's "Death Sentence," I thought to myself, "Wow, Wan's actually made a legitimately solid movie here; He's clearly decided to expand his horizons beyond 'Saw' and 'Dead Silence,' and make a real thriller about real people, real emotions, real situations and it's easily the best movie he's made so far." No less than 5 minutes later would I eat my words.

But rather than fall apart, the movie becomes something better: a deliriously insane, preposterous, shockingly entertaining exploitation film that amazingly enough, still works as a legitimate flick (not "film," not "movie") on its own terms. I probably couldn't in good conscience tell people it's "good;" but I say it's a wildly fun, ridiculous beast of a movie that is easily the one to see this weekend-- though I understand that's not saying much.

The opening credits roll to home video footage of Nick Hume's (Kevin Bacon) family, and more specifically, his son Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) growing up. Though Nick and wife Helen (a noticably not-good Kelly Preston) have another son Lucas (Jordan Garrett), they clearly treasure and favor their "golden boy" Brendan, their smart, good-looking college-age son with eyes on a future in the NHL. On one night stopping for gas, while Nick fills up the tank, Brendan stops in the station for a slushee. Almost immediately, a handful of ski-masked gang members stroll in, and go-ad their latest recruit (Matt O'Leary) into slashing Brendan's throat; on his way out, the slasher runs into Nick, who briefly removes his mask before he can get away.

Following Brendan's death, Nick-- saddled with an unrealistically unsympathetic lawyer-- easily identifies the perpretrator in a line-up. When informed that he's the only eyewitness and no DNA was found and that even with a guilty plea, the murderer of his son will only get 3-5 years, he intentionally blows his testimony so the dude can be set free and Nick can take matters into his own hands. He does, but it sets in motion a chain reaction of consequences he doesn't expect.

There, it seems like I spoiled the entire movie, doesn't it? That's the glorious thing about "Death Sentence:" that's the first THIRTY MINUTES of the film. The bulk of the movie, the remaining 90 minutes, are about the insane twists and turns that follow Nick's taking the law into his own hands. I don't want to spoil what takes place-- even my jaw dropped at numerous points-- all I'll say is that realists will completely detach, but the rest of us will revel in the old-school grindhouse madness.
While he does have some/many moments of Cary-Elwes-in-"Saw" overacting, it's difficult to imagine this movie working with any actor besides Bacon in the leading role. As ridiculous as his character's transformation might be, there's few actors who could pull off the extent of vulnerability and badass...ity (?) that Bacon does here. He should really be commended for being willing to go to the places he does in this movie and I, for one, am lobbying for a comeback. Start putting this guy as a lead in big movies again!

John Goodman shows up to ham it up for three or four brief scenes as a gun dealer with connections to Bacon's son's murderer, and he seems to be having a gloriously fun time chewing up the scenery. He's terribly fun to watch as well; he's simulataneously funny, terrifying, but always fascinating to watch. After a role with the same screentime, but none of the enjoyment, in "Even Almighty," it's great to see Goodman back in his element again.

What's most shocking, almost disconcerting, to me, is that Wan has actually materialized into a director I genuinely like. Though it clearly has issues, "Saw" is a movie I still like when I catch it on television, and I remain one of the only (if not THE only) defenders of this February's ventriliquist-dummy-horror-film "Dead Silence," a movie I still say worked in its own context and succeeded at everything it set out to do. It's difficult to say whether the schizophrenic "Death Sentence"-- which features a stunning unbroken three-minute shot in a parking garage-- represents a desire from Wan to mature as a filmmaker, or stay in his genre bubble, but either way, I'll continue to go see his movies.

Even when it descends (or ascends, depending on your viewpoint) into hyperviolent absurdity, "Death Sentence" always carries with it the themes of the perils of revenge, the costs one must pay to go down that road, and consistently asks the question of at what point do you become just as bad as those who initially wronged. Wan is anything but a subtle filmmaker (the flashes of 'Dead End' signs right before Brendan is killed was a particular nice/terrible touch), but there's a very nice moment of restraint-- probably the film's only one-- near the very end of the film that really worked for me; you'll know it when you see it.

"Death Sentence" is probably going to eat it at the box office this weekend-- its core audience is more inclined to go see Rob Zombie's latest abomination-- but I truly believe it's one people are going to discover on DVD and/or cable. If you can get through, or rather embrace, drastic tonal shifts and B-movie touches at every turn, you'll experience one of the most surprising and entertaining thrillers of 2007.


Post a Comment

<< Home