'Death's' noble message appears fatally flawed

Posted: August 31, 2007

"The story of this film is very Shakespearean," says director James Wan. Executive producer Andrew Sugerman agrees: "It is a kind of classical Greek tragedy. It's a story about a man wrestling with his own inner demons."

Studio production notes are typically rife with such backslapping, highfalutin hyperbole, but really, please, Death Sentence? Wake up, guys. Get real.

This cheesy exploitation drama, with Kevin Bacon as a dad gone mad when his son is killed by tattooed gangbangers, has been adapted, and updated (sort of), from the 1975 novel by Brian Garfield. Death Sentence was Garfield's sequel to Death Wish, the pulp paperback turned Charles Bronson revenge smash.

Wan, the splat-pack auteur behind the original Saw, attempts to pay homage to Death Wish here. Like Michael Winner's 1974 hit, Death Sentence looks gritty, cheap and dark. The cityscape is desolate, dirty, scary - crawling with cartoonish cretins and thugs.

But from the perfect family home movies that open the film, to its unconvincing "urban" settings (the film was shot in South Carolina), Death Sentence is one-dimensional, cliched. After corporate exec Nick Hume (Bacon) witnesses his son getting his throat slashed in a gas station convenience shop, everything is (understandably) upended. But when one of the perps is nabbed and the assistant D.A. tells Hume that the best they can hope for is 3 to 5 years of jail time, the shattered Hume decides to take matters into his own hands. Matters - and various bats, knives and guns, as well.

So begins a violent volley of revenge and retribution, as Hume chases down the gang members and the gang members chase down Hume, ultimately threatening his wife (Kelly Preston) and the couple's remaining son (Jodan Garrett). And then there's Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler), a bemused homicide cop who knows exactly what Bacon's character is up to, and warns, "Everybody thinks they're right in a war, and everybody dies in the end."

Death Sentence's message - that vengeance is ultimately futile, spinning out a vicious circle of rage and hate - may be commendable, but there's nothing noteworthy about the way Wan, Bacon and their troops go about delivering it.


Death Sentence ** (out of four stars)

Directed by James Wan. With Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, Aisha Tyler and John Goodman. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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