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Review: Felon

Felon
08.13.2008by: Eric Walkuski
7 10

PLOT: All around decent family man Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) has got it all: hot wife, cute kid, his own business, etc. After he kills a home-invader in a way deemed not exactly "in self-defense", it all vanishes and is replaced by Corcoran State Prison. Soon he meets up with all manner of prison movie stereotypes: the wise loner (Val Kilmer), the sadistic guard (Harold Perrineu), the sinister neo-nazi (Chris Browning). Wade's up to his lily-white butt in troubles - and that's even before he has to participate in gladiator-style fights!

REVIEW: I walked into FELON knowing only that it was a prison drama starring Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer, so naturally I expected a cheesy, over-the-top, borderline goofy B-Movie in the spirit of PENITENTIARY or maybe even OZ - the late great HBO t.v. show about hardened cons in an experimental prison wing. But from the opening moments, FELON announces itself as a more realistic, grounded take on the genre. How does it do this? Shaky cam! Yes, the opening scenes of Wade Porter's (Dorff) picturesque existence are shot in that hand-held manner that says "There ain't no tripods in real life!!" A simple conversation between Wade and his sexy wife Laura (Marisol Nichols, quite good) feels like it was shot by a camera operator with ants in his pants...

It gets even more "real" for Wade and familia when their house is broken into by a petty thug. A baseball-bat wielding Wade chases the man outside and clocks him in the noggin, instantly killing him. Turns out, this was a bad move, because it's not "self-defense" if the culprit is running away from you. Sorry Wade, but you're getting 2 years in the big house for protecting your home!

Almost immediately, things go in the shitter for ol' Wade. He gets into an ugly confrontation with another inmate in his holding cell, he witnesses a prison-bus stabbing, and worst of all, he rubs LT. Jackson the wrong way. Jackson is played by the usually benign Harold Perrineu and he's not one with whom to f*ck. He runs his section of the prison with an iron fist; not only that, he has no qualms about throwing rival gangs together in a small "yard" and watching the ensuing battle royales, laughing it up with his fellow guards and ending particularly savage brawls with a hail of rubber pellets from his rifle. Jackson's got issues...

This sucks for Wade, who wants to keep his nose as clean as possible obviously. But with the Aryan Brotherhood breathing down his neck (because it's basically assimilate or you're on your own), and Jackson giving him the evil-eye Wade sees himself in a position of "fight or die." It's a good thing he's got what every "new fish" needs in the clink: a hardened lifer who reluctantly becomes the poor guy's mentor. In this case, it's John Smith, played by a burly, philosophical Val Kilmer with a goatee almost as big as his head (it's a really big head). With John's help, Wade might make it out of this crazy place alive...

The biggest complements I can give FELON are, it didn't bore me, and it didn't insult my intelligence. That's a lot right there for a flick starring Stephen Dorff - who is surprisingly good. The first half actually does work fairly well, despite the obviousness of the cinéma vérité approach. I've never been to prison, but Wade's introduction to the jail - the humiliation of being strip-searched, the constant looking over your shoulder, the fear of not knowing who to trust - struck me as pretty authentic. Certainly some of the choices Wade has to make, such as whether or not to join the skinheads (as disgusting as it sounds, if it's between doing that and walking around with a veritable bullseye on your head, what would you do?) or contemplating being a rat, are the choices any similar man would be forced to ponder in comparable situations...

The film loses that edge as it enters its third act, where the melodrama is amped up and the storyline approaches the obvious - especially the race-against-the-clock finale. Most of what happens, we expect to happen, and that's unfortunate for a film that moves along as well as FELON does for the first hour or so. Perrineau's Jackson becomes more cartoonish with every scene, and a strange sequence involving his son in the hospital stops the movie in its tracks.

But the performances are respectable, the director proves he can stage an action scene, and the setting is potent enough to persuade you from ever committing manslaughter (again). It's not exactly a "fun" time, but for the most part, FELON works.

7/10

Source: AITH

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