When Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderios de LaClos coined the phrase “Revenge is a dish best served cold” in his 1782 book Les Liasons Dangereuses, he might well have added “with a large side dish of stupid” had he been subjected to the mess that is Death Sentence.
Directed by James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence), Death Sentence is Hollywood’s first offering out of the gate that mines this year’s theme du jour: vigilantism (soon to be followed by Jodie Foster’s The Brave One and Rosario Dawson’s Descent). Based on the novel by Brian Garfield — who penned it as a follow-up to Death Wish, which was transformed into the seminal 1974 Charles Bronson ode to vigilante justice — Death Sentence is movie that, on paper at least, looks like it should easily be a clear winner. Starring Kevin Bacon, who rarely missteps in his film choices, and with a talented budding director with a short but smart looking resume, it’s almost a mystery as to how this movie was allowed to degenerate into a steaming pile of stupidity.
The movie starts out well enough, with Bacon playing the role Nick Hume, a Fortune 500 company VP who is witness to his son’s murder by an urban gang out to initiate one of their own by way of a random killing. Wan continues to push all the right buttons with the revelation that judicial system is only interested in obtaining a plea bargain which would allow the killer to walk free in two to three years. Throughout this mounting cynicism, a bond is formed with the audience, aided in no small part by Bacon’s top notch empathetic acting. However the intelligence-insulting stupidity begins to slowly creep into the story around the midway mark as the gang decides to seek retribution for Hume’s initial act of vigilante justice. The lunacy is aided in no small part by a police force that seems to have been patterned after the Keystone Cops on the intelligence and efficiency scale. Along the way John Goodman turns in an abysmally laughable performance as an illicit arms dealer who not only happens to be the father of two of the principal gang members, but also happily sells a cachet of guns to Hume to aid his revenge-fuelled killing spree. By this point, however, the stupidity meter has begun to go off the scale.
Clearly Wan is out to make a statement about what happens when you take a morally good person (Hume) and immerse him in a society where justice is considered an item to be compromised and evil is fully capable of reigning triumphant. If only the execution of this theme had not been so ham-fisted, it might actually have had the same sort of gravitas it did with Death Wish. Near the end of the movie, gang leader Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund) says to Hume, “See what I’ve made you? You’ve become one of us” — which could have been profound were it not for the fact that the obviousness of this metaphor had already been beaten into the audience with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and along the way, stomped the life out of any humanity and intelligence this story initially offered.