As trashy vigilante fantasies go, you could do worse than Death Sentence. To be sure, the history of exploitation flicks is rife with more egregious examples. That might sound like damning with faint praise, and perhaps it is, but director James Wan (of Saw fame) deserves credit for dressing up this Death Wish-knockoff with honest-to-goodness visual flair.
Kevin Bacon lends a welcome intensity to the role of Nick Hume, a well-heeled business executive blessed with a beautiful wife (Kelly Preston) and two strapping teenaged sons, Brandon and Lucas (Stuart Lafferty and Jordan Garrett). One fateful night, Nick and Brandon are driving in one of those rough parts of town where -- as Bruce Springsteen once crooned -- when you hit a red light, you don't stop. They pull into a gas station just before a gang of ski-masked punks, guns a-blazing, pour out of two muscle cars to rob the place. The store clerk is shot dead in the ensuing scuffle, and one of the gangbangers uses a machete to fell young Brandon. Nick tackles his son's killer and pulls off his ski mask, but the youth manages to break free.
Grieving dad survives and is able to identify the machete-wielder, a thug named Joe (Matthew O'Leary), out of a police lineup. Even so, the eyewitness identification is all that prosecutors have to go on, and Nick is mortified to learn that the best that Lady Justice can offer is a plea bargain in which the defendant gets three to five years in prison.
It's enough to make Nick sabotage his own testimony, allowing Joe to go free. Dad has his own ideas about punishment. In one of the quickest vigilante turnarounds ever recorded on celluloid, Nick goes home from court and fumbles through his tool shed for a handy implement of death. He finds a rusted knife, trails Joe to a ramshackle apartment complex and pulls a Charlie Bronson on the punk.
Fortunately for Nick, he is visited by a police detective (Aisha Tyler) who either has no interest in pursuing Joe's killer or can't connect the dots between Nick's apparent motive and the suspicious bandage now on his hand. But Joe's brother and fellow gang member, Billy (Garrett Hedlund in a Ben Foster sort of role), can sure figure out the score. Suddenly Nick has sparked an all-out gang war against Billy and a dirtbag patron played by a wonderfully scenery-chewing John Goodman.
Wan is all surface-level noise and fury, but he provides the requisite jolts you need in a genre flick. Indeed, the film is only truly groan-inducing when it pushes alleged parallels between Nick and Billy -- both seek vengeance for slain family members, blah blah blah -- and a random subplot involving Brandon's neglected younger brother.
Shake off the pretense of subtext, however, and Death Sentence generally delivers the thrills. The no-frills plot is drawn in swift, concise brushstrokes; the only seriously sour note is Nick's rapid-fire transformation from white-collar exec to head-shaven badass. No matter. Ian Jeffers' script is ludicrous, ostensibly by design, and has gone off the deep end long before a near-dead Kevin Bacon, clad in a hospital gown, clambers out of his hospital bed so that he can mete out more revenge. Admittedly, there are a few seriously lunkheaded moments. Nick and his wife at one point are awakened by a blaring car horn. Nick looks out his bedroom window and sees that a policeman parked in a patrol car in front of their home has been slain, the man's head slumped against the steering wheel. Once that grisly sight is revealed to us, though -- poof! The horn stops.
What acquits the occasional narrative blunder is Wan's sleek craftsmanship. Drenched in a suitably garish, high-contrast cinematography, Death Sentence does not sacrifice style for gore. A particular standout scene involves the gang chasing Nick through a parking garage. With pure showoff panache, Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti use a single shot to follow the action through multiple levels of the parking garage as the camera swoops under guard rails and up ramps. Its effectiveness as a tool of suspense might be open to debate, but its sheer coolness is not.
The disc includes theatrical and unrated versions. The latter version boasts six minutes of additional footage.
The picture is presented in anamorphic widescreen that preserves the theatrical 2.35:1 ratio. As you'd expect with a film that had its theatrical run not too long ago, the picture quality is excellent, with vivid colors and solid details.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is solid and sharp, if not quite as dramatically immersive as one would hope for in a bullet-riddled thriller. An audio track is available in Spanish, and optional subtitles are in English, Spanish and French.
The complicated camerawork of the parking garage chase is detailed in Fox Movie Channel Presents Making a Scene (9:59). In Fox Movie Channel Presents Life After Film School with Kevin Bacon (26:23), the actor is interviewed by three film-school students. Bacon fans will find it enlightening and entertaining.
Ten webisodes have an aggregate length of 18 minutes, nine seconds. The bulk of it is standard promotional fare that is so laudatory of James Wan, you'd think they were produced by his mother. Nevertheless, there are fascinating nuggets included, particularly when it comes to orchestrating the bravura parking-garage scene.
Also included are trailers for Sunshine, Live Free or Die Hard, Joshua and Cover.
Unlike The Brave One, Death Sentence is under no delusion of being respectable. The picture's violence and worldview is cartoonish, maybe even a bit dimwitted -- but you were expecting Antonioni?