Embrace the badness. It’s a lesson that a lot of movies would benefit greatly from learning. Look at “Ghost Rider,” for example. That’s a bad, bad movie, right there, but hot damn, is it bad in a really fun way. James Wan, director of “Saw” and this year’s underwhelming “Dead Silence,” must have known that he was setting himself up for trouble when he signed on to make “Death Sentence,” author Brian Garfield’s first sequel to his 1972 novel “Death Wish.” And yet, Wan approaches the subject matter with a wide-eyed innocence that only occasionally taps into its potential for awesome badness. If you’re going to get in bed with a movie like this, you should be prepared to go all the way.
Kevin Bacon is Nick Hume, a risk assessment specialist whose life is torn apart when his oldest son Brendon (Stuart Lafferty) is killed before his very eyes in a gas station holdup by a group of masked thugs. Nick jumps the killer and is able to ID him in a police line, but once he learns that the killer will serve a relatively short sentence, Nick recants his testimony, making the killer a free man and, more conveniently, an open target. Nick exacts his revenge by killing his son’s killer, unaware that he has just started a gang war with noted dirtbag Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund), who now feels just as wronged as Nick did, setting the wheels of vigilante justice into tragic motion.
I’m willing to wager that Wan was attracted to the source material because it was as far removed from “Saw” as any directorial gig that he has likely been offered to date, and yet as each death scene came and went, I could not shake the thought that the movie would have been better served by a series of deadly traps, each one grislier than the last. They actually seemed to be heading in that direction at one point – in what turned out to be the most entertaining death scene the movie has to offer – but from then on, the goings get serious, man, and even though you want to get excited when Bacon gives the camera the ‘I’m Gonna Git You Sucka’ look, it’s too late for the movie to live up to either Wan’s reputation as a gorehound director or the awesomely bad potential of the source material. I will, however, give points to Bacon for giving the movie his all. Six degrees jokes and all, Bacon knows what a movie needs, even when the director himself doesn’t.
There is a case study to be made with “Death Sentence,” in that someone should wait outside of a theater showing the movie and ask the viewers, “So what is the moral of the story?” My critic friends and I asked ourselves that question as we were walking out, and we could not come up with one. Is vigilante justice wrong, or is vigilante justice only wrong when there is retribution for your act of retribution? The movie itself doesn’t appear to have an answer for this; it just wants to make sure a bunch of people get dead, but even on that front it fails, since the director, like it or not, has a reputation for dispatching with people in far more interesting ways than the poor bastards here. If you’re lucky enough to have a Brew & View near you, that would be the perfect environment in which to see “Death Sentence.” Since the movie itself didn’t embrace its inherent badness, it is now your problem to do so. A few drinks will definitely help in that endeavor.(2 / 5)