I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Death Sentence

Kevin Bacon plays a regular ol’ businessman guy whose son is randomly murdered in a gang initiation killing/convenience story robbery by tattoo-having, muscle car-driving, meth-dealing fantasy skinhead gangsters. When it becomes clear that the killer will only get a few years in prison he decides not to testify so that the case will be dropped and then he hunts the guy down and murders him. That is why it is called DEATH SENTENCE. The end.

Wait, no. My mistake. There’s more. Even if it’s obvious, even if it’s corny, what makes this movie cool is the gimmick that the good guys and bad guys reflect each other. In the scene where Bacon’s son is murdered, the older gangsters call the killer “my boy,” like Bacon would’ve at his son’s hockey game. They’re proud of the little guy. You know what they say about gangs, even phony movie gangs like this: they’re like a family. Bacon has a family member murdered, so he gets revenge. But that means the gang has their family member murdered, they must get revenge on him, so they come after him and his other son and his wife, and then he has to get revenge on them for trying to get revenge on him for getting revenge on them. So it’s the endless cycle of violence, the circle of revenge, the snake biting his own tail, the 360 degrees of Kevin Bacon. Just a couple of proud papas killing each other for killing each other’s boys. You know how it is. When the vengeance keeps going back and forth you can’t help but think of Iraq and other endless military conflicts. A police detective does refer to Bacon’s activities as “starting a war” but luckily that’s their only elbow nudge as far as “get it? It’s about war.”

Death SentenceThe director is James Wan who directed the first SAW and therefore is the godfather of “nu horror.” But his action movie here is pretty old school. Not just because it’s a Charles Bronson throwback but because it avoids all the quick cuts and other showoffy shit we hate in modern action movies. I like the action in this one, especially the extended car and foot chase in the middle. It would be a hell of a thing to do in real life but by action movie standards it’s very small and down to earth. Nicely put together, you feel like you’re right there with him and yet the camera doesn’t have to shake.

By the end Bacon goes Travis Bickle on that ass. He wears kind of a tough guy coat (actually his dead son’s – just like Punisher wearing the stupid skull t-shirt his son gave him) and he shaves his head. One nice touch I don’t remember seeing in a movie before – this guy is a businessman, he’s not experienced at shaving his own head, so he misses a spot on the back, and it stays that way for the rest of the movie. So instead of making him look cool or tough like your usual revenge-seeker after he gets suited up this getup makes him look legitimately crazy. It would be even better if he wore his son’s childhood pajamas or something but this will do.

I thought this was a DEATH WISH ripoff but it turns out it’s a blood relative. Officially it’s adapted from the book by Brian Garfield, which was actually a sequel to his book Death Wish. So in that sense this is sort of to DEATH WISH as DIE HARD was to THE DETECTIVE. Apparently the movie has almost nothing to do with the book, but since Garfield wrote the book as a response to the DEATH WISH movie and this movie shares his anti-vigilante statement, he likes it.

I should mention that I saw this one under unusual circumstances. I don’t think I really did anything wrong. I had a day off and I knew I could go to an early show. I looked up the movie times online, went to the earliest show, which was 1:10. At the theater I used the computer kiosk to buy tickets. When I clicked on DEATH SENTENCE there was no 1:10 showing listed. Then I noticed a separate button for OCA: DEATH SENTENCE or something like that. I couldn’t figure out what the letters stood for but I figured it was digital projection or something. Shit. Wish I knew that. Oh well, I know if I don’t see it now I’m never gonna get around to seeing this one. I’ll stay.

I thought about asking the gal who tore my tickets what those letters stood for, but I figured it didn’t matter. When the ads and trailers and shit started they were on film. So maybe it’s not digital. Or maybe the digital starts after the ads. Eventually the 20th Century Fox logo comes up. Still projected from film. Except on the bottom of the screen there is a subtitle with musical notes and it says “(Triumphant music)”.

Around me there is shuffling and muttering as many, if not all of the 7 or 8 of us in the theater realize “Oh shit, this is close captioned for the hearing impaired.”

At first I thought it wouldn’t be that bad. I just wouldn’t look at them. But no matter how hard I tried not to notice them I could not not notice them. It’s like a constant heartbeat in the form of a blurry white flash below my field of vision. Even in the movie’s long, wordless chase scene it would flash musical notes on the screen, as if seeing that symbol would make the scene more intense for deaf people.

I considered leaving, getting a pass to come back some other time. But I knew there was no other time. My solution was to watch the movie while holding my hands up in front of my eyes to block the lower part of the screen.

Two things about the closed captioning: 1, a guy answered his cell phone during the movie. He went outside to have the conversation but he actually answered it at normal volume and talked as he walked to the exit. Usually you would figure he was a huge asshole but this time he must’ve assumed everybody was deaf anyway and wouldn’t give a shit.

The other thing is that a couple weeks later I was in the same theater and I noticed OC: THE BRAVE ONE, which is the higher brow DEATH WISH ripoff starring Jodie Foster. So you gotta figure there must be some huge demand for vigilante movies in the hearing impaired community.

Anyway, the reason I bring up the captioning is because this movie was pretty enjoyable in a generic sort of way, but who knows, it might’ve been the god damn GODFATHER if I had not been so distracted and had been able to see the whole frame. It all depends on what was going on in that lower part of the screen. Or maybe the movie is actually pretty bad but all the bad stuff is in that lower part, maybe I enjoyed it more than I would have. If so I would like to thank Regal Cinemas for not using the mirror that reflects subtitles from the back of the theater like they do at Cinerama.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 30th, 2007 at 11:03 am and is filed under Action, Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Death Sentence”

  1. Man, that was the funniest review I’ve read in ages, and I find all your stuff hillarious. I never got around to watching Death Sentence, but as a fan of The Bacon, it is on my ‘To Watch List’.
    Thanks for the review.

  2. After some time has passed and I’ve seen this movie again I really think it’s one of the most underrated mainstream movies of the 2000s. It’s genre material from a familiar formula but with some nice spins on it, with surprisingly good action scenes and with Bacon giving it 100% despite what anybody else might think. I guess I’ve talked about it in reviews of other, less enjoyable vigilante movies, but this one really deserves more credit.

    Still hate the open captions, though. I’ve run into that problem about six times now.

  3. Hey Vern,

    I was scrolling down to comments to ask if you’d seen it again and was glad to see you had!

    I agree, i think this is a great movie that was underappreciated. I’m a big Kevin Bacon fan and I think he did some incredible work in this.

    I love the chase sequence, SPOILER I think it’s great how out of breath he gets yet keeps running and you have the sense that he’s older but he’s fit while they’re younger but not so fit, it’s a nice battle.

    Found this a really enjoyable throwback, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, I mean it in a great way.

  4. The star of this movie is that damn guardrail on the rooftop level of the parking garage. It is unable to impede a car rolling 4 miles per hour, thus allowing the vessel to go over the edge for the big vertical crash.

    That’s a dope chase scene, though.

  5. Fans of DEATH SENTENCE might enjoy the dvd’s ‘Making of’ featurette on how they did the best scene.

    My enjoyment of this movie didn’t shine through in my January comment, but that’s my bad. Somehow the movie’s reputation seems to have been improving even without my official endorsement, so that’s good. I think I saw some random James Wan on set footage & interview somewhere else, too, and he strikes me as maybe not the brightest bulb in the chandelier but very committed to making good, fun movies. His energy is genuine and infectious. I like him.

    I’m a Wan fan. I gots love for J-Dub.

  6. I just caught this one on TV. Damn, it’s a seriously good one and I wonder how the hell they did some of the camera moves in the parking garage chase.
    The one thing that really annoyed me, was the overuse of cheesy pop ballads. The film uses music so sparely. Some of the most suspenseful moments didn’t have any music at all, but whenever something sad happened, BAM! Cheesy pop ballad.
    Oh well, it’s still James Wan’s best movie. I haven’t seen his INSIDIOUS yet, but if you ask me, he should stop making horror movies and focus on action movies instead.

  7. And by the way, how come that John Goodman wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar yet? This guy is great in everything he does.

  8. I think he would make movies in all genres, but when your big hits are horror, you know that’s all they want you to make. Hopefully the success of Insidious (which is also quite good) will give him the chance for Death Sentence 2: The Punctuation.

  9. This movie is so strange. It is both excellent and awful at the same time. The first 40 minutes are very rote and basic and a lot of the character decisions are retarded.

    Why the hell would the gang members leave their buddy at the gas station while he was covered in the blood of a man he just murdered? Like, he could get arrested…in fact, that’s exactly what happens! And then, when he gets released, they all act like it’s a great victory, even though it was a totally unnecessary near-catastrophe.

    And then Kevin Bacon begins stalking them, literally *exactly* in front of the courthouse. This is the strangest thing about Death Sentence. Important plot points are very often within arms reach during expository scenes and much of the dialogue is… very minimalist, if you wanna be generous.

    Like, when Kevin Bacon stands outside his first victim’s house, a *single* woman passes by. Later, the bad guys know to look for Bacon because the one woman who saw him is a gang member’s sister. The lead gangster says to check in with the sister for more details. In a normal movie, that would be the cut away, either to talking to the sister, or to a new sequence. But not Death Sentence. No, in this movie, the sister is literally five feet away, so the guy turns around and asks her. Then, the lead gangster grabs a newspaper, which just happens to have a picture of Bacon in a story about his son’s murder. (Also, it’s a week+ old paper. Maybe they were keeping it for a scrap book?)

    And then then that crazy garage scene happens and suddenly it’s an entirely different movie. It’s like the filmmakers purposefully made the setup nothing but one cliche after the other to lull you into a state of security before going totally off the rails?

    The movie just gets super inventive and weird as soon as the gangsters attack Bacon in broad daylight. It escalates very well and the action is awesome and that last moment between Bacon and the lead gangster is just poetic. But then so much of the rest of the movie is sledgehammer central.

    Still, a fan, possibly because of its flaws. Gets better each time.

  10. Also, when Bacon wakes up in the hospital. He has the normal thrashing scene, but then he jumps out of bed and runs down the hall demanding to know where his son is. At first a nurse says she doesn’t know and then she tells him immediately afterward. Then, the security guards just watch him running around. And then it turns out that his son’s hospital room was like, literally right down the hall from his. Everything is just physically close by. It’s kinda ballsy in its lets-just-get-to-the-cool-part-already attitude. Almost like watching a Death Wish movie but tapping fastforward on all the expository scenes.

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