Saturday, 16 June 2012

Death Sentence - Movie Review

Spoiler Free Review Synopsis: Damn, do I freaking love this movie. It's crazy dark and morally grey, and packed full of badass. Just had to get that out of the way before I dove right into the review. If you like gritty action-dramas about violence and justice, by all means check it out.

Death Sentence is the 2007 film adaptation of the 1975 novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. It was written as the sequel to Garfield's Death Wish, earlier adapted into a film series starring Charles Bronson, about a family man whose life is destroyed by gang violence, transforming him to a vengeful vigilante. This film is a self-contained, unrelated story to the original, so it's an adaptation in name only, but no less significant or powerful for the change.

The film centers around an upper-class everyman named Nick Hume (played by Kevin Bacon) whose oldest son is killed in a gas station robbery gone bad. He witnesses the murder and identifies the killer, a small-time local gang member, who is caught and arrested. However, upon being advised by the officer in charge of the case Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler) and the prosecuting attorney that the gang member will likely make a deal in exchange for a reduced sentence, Hume recants his testimony and allows his son's murderer to walk free, much to the dismay of his wife and younger son. Wait, what?

As it turns out, Hume decides that if the law can't give him justice, he'll just have to take matters into his own hands. He follows the gang member back to his home, brings a knife and stabs him to death. Having avenged the death of his son, Hume is willing to move on with his life. However, the act is uncovered by the rest of the gang, led by the victim's older brother (Garret Hedlund), who seek out Hume in retaliation. They track him down at his work, and proceed to attack him. How do they accomplish this? They chase him down in broad daylight, through the downtown streets and local businesses, firing guns with dozens of witnesses present, cackling insanely.

In the pursuit, Hume makes it to the parking garage where his vehicle is parked at the top level. On the way up, he sets off every car alarm he can, hoping to draw attention to the scene. I guess nobody in this city has a cell phone, since neither Hume nor any witnesses think to call the police. Special attention must be paid to the camera work in this scene. Normally I wouldn't go into detail with this sort of thing because I'm not educated on the finer points of cinematography, but the whole scene is an uninterrupted tracking shot that follows Kevin Bacon as he climbs three levels of the parking structure, then drops back down a level to follow the pursuing gang members, then moves to a crane shot that rises to the top of the structure, where Bacon is finally reaching his vehicle. If you catch this on DVD, check that out in the special features, it's really cool.

Anyway, in what is probably the movie's coolest fight scene (though it has some competition there), Hume engages in a brawl with one of the gang members. The fight starts among the cars, then moves into a nearby car. The parking break is disengaged, allowing the vehicle to slowly roll down the incline, gaining momentum. Just as the car is about to go over the edge, Hume leaps out the rear window, allowing the car and the man inside to plummet several stories and smash into the ground.

However, the gang members obtained Hume's briefcase during the chase, giving them all of his personal information. They opt to contact him directly, making direct threats against his life and that of his family. Faced with this, Hume contacts Det. Wallis and asks for her help. She berates him for taking the law into his own hands, basically telling him that he started all this. Still, she assigns two officers to protect them in case the gang decides to attack their home. Not for a moment do they think of running away...

Hume stands watch over his family in the night, and upon hearing noise from outside, looks out the window to see the officers have been brutally killed, and that the killers have come. He manages to fight them off surprisingly well, swinging hard with a baseball bat and dodging shotgun blasts before he is finally overpowered. The gang leader shoots Hume's remaining son, his wife, and then him, leaving them all for dead. Hume's wife dies, and his son is left comatose, while he sustains severe injuries including the gunshot wound to his gut, a major gash across his scalp, and various cuts and bruises. Det. Wallis is waiting when he awakens to once again chastise him for getting his family killed. Wait, WHAT?

I'll point out at this point that the original author of the novel, Brian Garfield, actually praised this movie for not glorifying the use of vigilante violence like Death Wish had. In those movies, Bronson's character is almost universally praised for his righteous crusade against crime and criminals that have threatened the fabric of our society. It reaches fantastic levels in the 3rd installment, in which gangs have near total control of a major city, the police are helpless against them, and it is only Bronson's willingness to engage in open warfare that saves the day. He guns down purse-snatchers in the street, mows down crowds with a military-grade heavy machine gun, and blows the gang leader through a brick wall with a rocket launcher (at point-blank range no less), and is allowed to walk off into the sunset at the film's end. This message runs in direct opposition to Garfield's original novels, which cautioned against vigilante justice because of the harm it does.

Having said that, I would like to pause the film for a moment to take a quick look at the situation Hume finds himself in, and engage in a little ethical musing. His innocent son was murdered (along with an anonymous gas station clerk) by some punks as part of a gang initiation. Our legal system couldn't do more than put the murderer in prison for a couple years. Hume took matters into his own hands and got justice for the death of his son, taking an eye for an eye as the saying goes. Whether or not you agree with this decision is a matter of personal opinion. It was certainly illegal, and Hume deserves punishment for his actions, however understandable they might be. But then the gang retaliates by chasing him through the streets with guns to try to kill him, then chasing him to his home to kill him, his wife and son, and two police officers. Hume and his son survive by sheer luck, and it is at this moment that Det. Wallis decides to lecture him about the morality of his actions? What exactly have you been doing this whole time? Instead of wagging your finger at the guy who's laying in a hospital bed, maybe you ought to be arresting the armed gang members who opened fire in the middle of a downtown street and murdered five people during the course of the movie, including two of your fellow officers? These guys have been killing people LONG before Nick Hume ever got involved, and what have you done about it? No, it's far easier to blame the ordinary guy who's defending his family and avenging the death of his son than the psychotic miscreants who've been treating your city like a playground. Get out of my movie. Don't come back until you're ready to be useful.

Nick doesn't buy her sanctimonious speech and escapes the first chance he gets. Once again the police are shown to be totally incompetent by their absence, as they are unable to track down a severely injured man traveling on-foot wearing a hospital gown and a big head bandage, even as he returns to his home to change and later goes to his bank. He empties out his son's college fund, then he's off to buy some guns. Here's where the movie shifts into a whole different gear of awesome. He finds his way to a black market weapons dealer, played by John Goodman. As it turns out, he's been backing the gang this entire time, and is in fact the father of both the gang leader and the younger brother Hume killed. However, despite all this, he respects Hume's plight as a father and makes no move to stop him. It also helps that Hume's a paying customer with fat stacks of cash. We've seen Goodman's character in small bits throughout the movie, where he berates his son for his reckless behavior. Goodman is sadly underutilized in this role, and this scene is a highlight of the film. He loves his children, but recognizes that they've made their choices and have to pay the consequences. He sells Hume a couple pistols and a shotgun, plus ammunition and instruction manuals. If you're like me and you enjoy a little gun porn here and there, this is a nice little treat.

The following montage is subtle, but powerful. Hume takes the weapons and a first aid kit into a shed, where he takes the time to become familiar with their workings and patch himself up. He starts off fumbling around with the guns, but eventually works it out. He shaves his head and puts on his son's old leather jacket, heading out for his vengeance. Kevin Bacon delivers a great performance here as his character develops over the course of the movie. At the start of the film, Hume is a mild-mannered individual who is unaccustomed to violence. When he confronts his son's murderer, he barely manages to keep his emotions in check, appearing nervous and panicked before, during, and afterwards. As he is being pursued through the streets by the gang, he is frantic but manages to keep his head, activating the car alarms and using his own to distract an attacker. When they come for him at home he's ready for them with a baseball bat, leading them up the stairs and managing to take out two of them with improvised tactics. From this point onward, Hume is unrecognizable from the start of the film. He is angry, but steady, and his actions are brutal and direct. He's scarred and bruised, but far tougher as a result of what he's been through. I love strong character arcs, and this is a great one.

Hume tracks the gang members down to their hideout, which is also a drug lab. Still not sure why the police were having trouble nailing these guys, but it's far too late for those kinds of questions. He blows the doors down and storms the place, taking out everybody he sees with deadly efficiency. Limbs and digits are blown off, bullets punch through bodies like wet sacks of meat, and everybody reloads when they're logically supposed to. Director James Wan had previously been known only for his work on the Saw series (he directed the first one, wrote the first and third, and produced them all), but he also directed the 2011 sleeper hit Insidious, which was also a great film. You can see his influence on the film in the darker scenes, where the muted blue/grey colors and off-putting camera angles serve to unsettle the viewer, in addition to the gory violence.

In a point blank shootout, Hume fatally wounds the gang leader, but is himself shot. Both men wounded and out of bullets, they collapse together on a bench and share a brief moment, as the gang leader remarks that Hume has become just like him now; a cold-blooded killer. For his part, Hume simply draws his second handgun and cocks it. The film ends with Hume returning home, clutching his wounds, to watch a home movie of his family enjoying happier times, as Wallis arrives to inform him that his son has regained consciousness. In the Unrated cut of the movie, he then dies of his injuries.

While watching Liam Neeson's Taken, in which a father goes to outrageous lengths to rescue his kidnapped daughter, including cold-blooded torture and shooting innocent bystanders, I had a debate with my friend about the morality of taking extreme measures, and whether or not the ends justify the means. Works like Taken, 24, and Death Sentence approach this topic in different ways, and any work of fiction that inspires debates like this is a good one in my book. On top of that, we get strong performances from Bacon, Hedlund, and Goodman, an engaging drama, and great action pieces. Very much recommended.

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