Bacon stays crisp in 'Sentence'

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, September 06, 2007

"Death Sentence"

20th Century Fox

1 hour, 50 minutes

The big movie at the box office this weekend was Rob Zombie's blood-soaked remake of the classic horror film, "Halloween," an odd choice for a late summer release, considering it's kind of got its own date all marked out in October. Regardless, I opted out of seeing it for several reasons. One, horror movies in general are not really my style, and Rob Zombie, in particular, falls far out of my usual range. Today's horror films are often too much consumed with gore and a penchant for brutal and sadistic torture rather than scares.

Also, why remake this movie? The original "Halloween" is a film that works as well today as it did 30 years ago, so what possible reason could there be to update it, unless it's to add more brutal and sadistic torture?

With all that in mind, and considering I made the trek up to the fair this weekend, giving me the opportunity to take advantage of all the options the big city has to offer, I decided to go see Kevin Bacon's latest, "Death Sentence," a virtual remake of the 1970s' classic "Death Wish," filmed in the style of a modern horror film by the director of "Saw." Hmmmm.

I know it appears hypocritical of me to eschew one bloody remake for another, but I guess I just prefer a good shoot-em-up to a slasher flick. And, "Death Sentence" isn't a literal remake. Though it is based on the sequel to the novel "Death Wish," I understand that it mines the source material mainly for themes and not actual details. Like "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Death Sentence" simply offered a convenient title to lazy screenwriters.

Bacon is Nicholas Hume, good father, husband and all-around guy. Director James Wan does a marvelous job in just a few minutes of establishing this normal, happy family through home-video footage that follows Nicholas and wife, Helen, played by the ever-lovely Kelly Preston, from early marriage up through the birth and childhood of their two sons, Brendan and Lucas.

While introducing the major players, this brilliant opening sequence succeeds in amping up the tension through nothing but happy scenes of everyday life. If you've seen the poster or the preview, or even read the title, "Death Sentence," you know none of these people are going to be happy for long. Sure enough, 10 minutes in and eldest son and aspiring hockey star Brendan is left horrifyingly dead as the result of a gang initiation killing.

The killer is quickly apprehended, but as shattered father Nicholas watches the legal system unravel around him, it becomes apparent that a different kind of justice will need to be imposed. What follows is a depressing and graphically violent downward spiral as our once-normal everyman descends into a hell of seedy and depraved vengeance. The neon-flashing "Theme of the Movie" sign comes on in one of the final exchanges as one of the myriad tattooed gangland sociopaths observes a battered, bloody and shaven-headed Nick and says, "Look at you. You look like one of us. Look what I made you." Apparently vigilante justice does not have a happy ending.

Despite its horror movie roots, "Death Sentence" has a depth one might not originally envision a film of this nature having. Bacon's performance is stellar, far and away better than any around him, and watching his character come apart is both depressing and mesmerizing. I also appreciated the sense of reality, at least thematically, employed through much of the production. Unlike the adventures of Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal or Charles Bronson, Nick Hume's stint as a vigilante killer is not easy, nor does it have particularly favorable results.

The story is gripping, but never once does it suggest that this course of action is a positive one. Not that I would ever accuse a movie like this of being socially responsible. We'll save that mantle for Jodie Foster's upcoming pseudo-"Death Wish" remake, "The Brave One," not for this film that lovingly lingers on blasted body-parts and employs a thrash-metal score.

Wan, though stretching somewhat from his senseless "Saw" series, isn't fully able to make the leap to normal, mainstream filmmaking, though he does make a few strides in the right direction. Fakey computer-generated blood-spray and production design cribbed directly from "Seven" hold him back, though no one could accuse him of being unable to create a mood. The stark look of the film serves the bleak tone well.

He's definitely got talent, but here the real luck was in casting Bacon. Without him, "Death Sentence" would have been throwaway late-summer trash, no matter how moody the director made it. With Bacon, the film gets a reprieve, if not a full pardon. Grade: B

"Death Sentence" is rated R for gruesome bloody violence and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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