Background: Prison stories have been a staple of American pop culture for generations, going back even further than such notable titles as Public Enemy, White Heat, The Hurricane, Midnight Express, The Shawshank Redemption, or The Green Mile and many more. Depending on the focal point of the movie, the details change but the overall idea remains the same about prison life being something no one wants to endure. In the past twenty years, it seems that a growing number of people have ended up in such places too, the result of cultural clashes heavily documented by directors of various media. My review for today is on a lesser such effort simply called Felon, a story of a family man caught up in events and paying the price for his own mistakes, many clichés tossed in by director Ric Roman Waugh to liven things up.
Movie: Felon sells the premise that "it could happen to anyone" in relation to the way the protagonist Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) ends up serving a lengthy prison term for protecting his family from a burglar. Unlike the heavily fictionalized accounts of false imprisonment of movies such as The Hurricane, in this case there is no doubt that Wade is responsible for the death of the burglar. The successful small businessman and wife had just been celebrating his approved SBA loan and crashed for the night when they hear a suspicious noise coming from their young sons room. Like all good family men in a liberal state, he grabs a baseball bat instead of a firearm and goes to see what is going on. He fights with the burglar and chases him outside, the fleeing felon making it outside and halfway down the front lawn before Wade hits him in the head with the bat. This results in a dead burglar and the police arresting Wade for protecting his family at night time from a punk. The rational is that his state doesn't allow for a man to continue chasing a burglar and the circumstances leading to the death are ruled a murder. Wade decides to save money and go with a public defender, resulting in a plea bargain he accepts that require him to go to jail for at least 18 months on a three year sentence, his family left without a provider. The social commentary on the set up of the story can be discussed later, my sympathies going with the honest homeowner over the criminal.
On his way to prison, Wade ends up in a jail transfer bus that has a small riot, one of the other criminals getting severely hurt. Wade is set up as the fall guy and even though no one truly believes he had anything to do with the stabbing, it leads to him going to a really dangerous part of the jail under the supervision of prison guard Lt Jackson (Harold Perrineau). The Lt is a sadistic man that has lost a lot to his years of service, the endless grudge he holds against those he incarcerates explained well into the movie but coming off as two dimensional to this reviewer. Wade is also subjected to daily violence by prison gangs, the cursory explanation provided by cell mate John Smith (Val Kilmer), a serial killer that no one messes with, that there are only a few gangs but complicated politics involved with anything he does. Needless to say, his 18 months is a living hell where he is beaten up by his fellow inmates, his rape is alluded to, and his personal relationship to his wife Laura (Marsol Nichols) and son Michael (Vincent Miller) falls apart. There was a bit of background given regarding the Lt but it was never enough to elevate him above a generic prick of a man, the guy allowing the prison fights to continue as a means of entertainment for the guards as well as a manner in which he could use them against each other to maintain order.
I appreciated that Kilmer gave a decent performance in the movie and the far smaller role of Sam Shepard as Gordon Camrose, another former guard captain with ties to Smith, was okay but the rest of the cast might as well have been selected at random. Dorff is shown as a simpleton that goes along with almost everything coming across his path to make it through the "sea of sharks" and the writer/director must hate having a complex antagonist that would have breathed life into the movie given how lame the role was. It was no surprise that the fight scenes were largely unchoreographed and they seemed well done, perhaps in large part because the director is best known as a long time stuntman. The plot holes needed to get the characters where they needed to be to tug the heartstrings were frequent and plentiful too, almost exclusively taken from the "I did nothing wrong" club of criminals he interviewed as well, resulting in a movie that could at best be worth a rating of Rent It based on Kilmer's involvement alone.
Picture: Felon Blu-Ray was presented in a full 1080p resolution using the AVC codec with a bitrate hovering largely around the 25.5 Mbps mark and an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Unlike some prison films of years past, this was presented in a muted color, using the stark imagery of prison in such a way to help develop the claustrophobic nature of the setting. There was a lot of grain this time, so much I wondered what was wrong with the disc and fans of edge enhancement will be happy to know there was some here. It looked a lot like a modestly budgeted made-for-television cable effort most of the time, a few of the scenes weaker than others but the overall look about what I expected. I did not notice compression artifacts or moiré effects here and the shaky camera in some of the least sensible settings (like in court) added to the cheese factor more than the fight sequence use did.
Sound: The primary audio track was presented in English Dolby True HD 5.1 Surround with optional subtitles in English or French. The bitrate hovered around the mid 2 Mbps area most of the time I checked, typically hovering around 2.3 or 2.4 for those that live by the numbers so exclusively. The majority of the aural content came from the center speaker and sounded just fine with limited dynamic range to speak of but the vocals were easy to hear. The score was generic to a fault and while appropriate to the stark visuals, did little outside of clumsily supporting the visual palate in what amounted to a comic book level depth. The bass was only a factor in a limited few scenes and the rear speakers did little outside of the action sequences to involve any of the plot. As stated earlier, it was much like a low budget offering where the decision to save money was rolled over into the technical aspects of the release, perhaps working better than a more aggressive approach ever could have but nothing special either.
Extras: The main extras on the disc were a set of trailers and a short feature on the making of the movie called Shark Tank: An Inside Look At Felon. The short was primarily a vehicle for the director and lead actors to become cheerleaders for the release, little in it worth spending the dozen or so minutes it lasted. There was a BD Live feature too but unless you are looking for more trailers, you won't find anything substantial there at this writing.
Final Thoughts: Felon was an okay little outing for those of you willing to overlook all the flaws of the writing in favor of the dramatic license used to showcase what rational people would call a travesty of justice. This was made easier by the extensive cheating Waugh engaged in with the use of expositional extras (nameless characters that explain much of what is going on so the writer doesn't have to be clever or spend time crafting the situations as well) and the social commentary made for a number of issues was strong enough to beat the viewer over the head with. That said, none of the characters outside of John Smith were overly interesting so check this out on a slow night, just don't expect to see the prison experience portrayed any more realistically than better crafted flicks of the last ten or so years.