Death Sentence (James Wan, 2007)

by Douglas Buck August 20, 2019 6 minutes (1394 words) HD streaming

Dad Nick Hume as he pumps gas into his car: ‘Hey, where you going?’
Son Brendon with a rambunctious look walking into the station: ‘I need my food groups, dad.’
Nick (beaming with fatherly pride): Ah, yes. The obligatory slushee stop.’
(I mean honestly… with forced family dialogue like this, I couldn’t wait for the bad guys to kill them)

Businessman Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon), living the American dream in his comfortable suburban existence, with a MILF wife (Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s beard in real life) and a coupla good white boys, has his life turned horrifically upside down after one son (the boy who was dreaming of being a hockey star, headed soon to college!) is brutally murdered by a bunch of gangbangers during an initiation ritual, leading the distraught insurance man to take the law into his hands and – in an attempt to go all Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey on them (only in much more aught’s slick style) – seek some vigilante justice.

Continuing past the Death Wish franchise, first into this tangentially connected film (Death Sentence having taken its title and a few minor details – and I mean minor, but I’ll get to that later — from Brian Garfield’s sequel novel to the original best-selling “Death Wish” also by the author) with the plans of eventually excitedly getting into some of those gritty 80’s vigilante films (both great and small) that Charles Bronson’s conscientious objector turned dispenser of street justice Paul Kersey’s violent cinematic adventures inspired, the first stop (post-“Death Wish V”) was this effort by favored genre blockbuster director Wan… and, no surprise, coming from a mainstream director of much acclaim, despite the occasionally impressive bangs and booms, the slick camerawork that never stops and all the surface pomp, it’s ultimately an almost entirely emotionally dishonest and mediocre effort.

From the very beginning, with its insipid home video footage of the gung-ho foursome of actors playing ‘happy family’ (in footage so forced I could only imagine it believable if it was for a story about a father revealed as a closeted pedophile who has been secretly diddling his boys for years) and on into the dinner scene, where the boys play at not really getting along (in surface ways that have nowhere near the dark painful realities of actual sibling rivalry) and the “Leave it to Beaver” banter between mom and dad, to young athletic Brendon drinking his aforementioned slushee as dad shakes his head in mock disapproval, and on into the reports he reads about how apparently the more children a family has, the longer the parents live, the whole set-up is pure propagandist, classist nonsense, presenting the Humes as the ultimate American family worth preserving… when, in fact, few can come close to attaining those lives.

The gangbangers themselves, led by actor Garrett Hedlund as leader Billy Darley, are more caricatures than anything approaching reality… and they’re also a fairly unimposing lot, made even less menacing with all the slow motion and Black Angels’ music that Wan uses almost every time we see them. Hedlund tries his best, and looks the part well enough with his shaved head, but there’s an underlying gentle quality to him… something that could have allowed a really interesting performance if the writing had allowed even a modicum of complexity to emerge from his psychopathic role. Darley’s hindered even further with a loudmouthed, criminal of a dad (played by John Goodman, who, every time he shows up, Wan tries pulling out all the lighting and camera tricks to make as showy as possible, but can never get around how morbidly obese the actor looks, or how little he’s given other than a lot of shouting lines telling us what a scumbag he is to his kids), which I guess is Wan and the writers trying to make a comparison between the two families, doing its neo-liberal best to dress up the failures of society not in class injustice and repression of the poor, forcing many into street criminality, but in whether you have a mean daddy or not (mommies don’t seem to matter much in Death Sentence).

The event that starts the transformation of Hume from happy father and businessman down the path towards shaven-headed barbaric vigilantism (with a sudden keen fighting ability and impressive weapons-handling prowess – all skills that took Charles Bronson two movies in the “Death Wish” franchise before he reached!), with its reliance on the urban legend of the ol’ flashing headlights trick, the kind told by suburban families around the dinner table, convincing themselves of the danger of the less privileged and validating their contempt for the lower classes shunned from their neighborhoods.

There are some cool action sequences, such as the car that goes off the side of the building roof, and a lot of effort put in some bravura action sequences (apparently, there was a lot of brouhaha at the time over the length and difficulty of mapping out the chase across a city parking garage, done all in one long shot as it moves from level to level), but it all gets watered down by how little attention is paid to things actually making sense, or having the characters respond in believable ways. And Wan tries to cover it all up with endless showmanship.

For a film about family death and a man caught up in brutality way beyond his normal life, Wan does a terrible disservice in how he approaches any of the emotional scenes (of which the film attempts many of). As soon as a character has a moment of suffering — mom, say, learning of the death of her son – Wan pulls back, relying on slow motion, camera trickery and some deplorable emo-core type of music, managing not to engage, but to protect the audience from getting too close to the experience. Even the scene, about two-thirds in, of further jaw-droppingly brutal violence by the gangbangers against Hume’s family that marks a state of no return and nothing any longer to lose for the once innocent daddy (with him now shaving his head), as surprisingly shocking and potentially admirably go-for-broke as it is, is captured with little profound impact (I mean, damn, this is a moment that could have been a kernel of unforgettable violent cinematic history, up there with that initial rape of mother and daughter in the first _Death Wish_… alas, Wan has nowhere near the guts or depth to give it any of that resonance).

Wan is a huckster filmmaker (at least with this film), with little daring beneath the surface presentation. And, as with many a talented huckster, he found his audience, as I think the film did fairly well upon its release (hey, I’d love to be wrong and discover it tanked, but I don’t think so).

Brian Garfield’s original Death Sentence continued the adventures in street justice by accountant Paul Benjamin (the name was changed to Kersey, and his profession to architect, for the films), only now in Chicago instead of New York. While introducing a second street vigilante with less ethical dimensions than Benjamin was Garfield’s attempt at addressing the reactionary right wing path he was horrified to find the films travelling down, I find the author a bit clueless as to the far-from-progressive visions he was creating. With perspectives only from the privileged ‘whiter’ side of the tracks, Garfield revealed himself as a limited writer. On top of it, with the once topical excitement at the subject matter no longer there, both of the Paul Benjamin “Death” books (and Garfield’s writing) read today as rather pedestrian.

Other than the film having Nick Hume wait outside of the courtroom (after recanting his eyewitness testimony to let his son’s murderer go free) to follow home the boy in order to exact some bloody revenge referencing the book’s Benjamin targeting his prey by waiting outside courtrooms for all those street criminals getting off on technicalities, and the fact they both follow vigilantes, book and film adaption have almost nothing to do with each other.

The ‘adapted from’ credit is just another false sales pitch on a film filled with them, displaying yet again how, underneath its glossy surface, lies emptiness and dishonesty at its core.

Death Sentence (James Wan, 2007)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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