The Best Movie You Never Saw: Death Sentence

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at DEATH SENTENCE!

THE STORY: A family man (Kevin Bacon) seeks revenge when his son is murdered during a gang initiation, with dire consequences for the rest of his family.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, Kelly Preston, Garrett Hedlund. Directed by James Wan.

THE HISTORY: When I went to see Eli Roth’s DEATH WISH remake (which – incidentally – I hated), I could help but think back to James Wan’s far superior vigilante tale, DEATH SENTENCE. In a way, it was a much better DEATH WISH remake than Roth’s, and is actually based on a sequel novel original “Death Wish” scribe Brian Garfield wrote back in the seventies. You see, Garfield’s original novel was far more ambiguous when it came to Paul Kersey’s vengeance, and he was apparently horrified to see people think of the character as a hero. The book, “Death Sentence” was his answer, and while apparently Wan and writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers junked a lot of the book, it was faithful to Garfield’s theme, and the author went on-record praising the film.

“I think that except for its ludicrous violence toward the end, the Death Sentence movie does depict its character's decline and the stupidity of vengeful vigilantism -- and Kevin Bacon unflinchingly gives us the character's entire slide into atavism. I think his performance is excellent.” – Author Brian Garfield Interview

Sadly, DEATH SENTENCE wasn’t a hit when it came out in 2007, with the film getting flamed by critics, and audiences staying away in droves. It didn’t help that the trailers played up the fact that Wan directed SAW, and made this look like a horror flick. Audiences aren’t dumb. They know when they’re being lied to. It took a little while longer for Wan to break out for genre, but he did it (big time) with FURIOUS 7 (arguably the best of the FAST & FURIOUS series), and while he hasn’t abandoned horror (THE CONJURING), he’s at the top of the A-list for all kinds of movies, with him now putting the finishing touches on AQUAMAN. But what about DEATH SENTENCE?

WHY IT'S GREAT: DEATH SENTENCE is not a movie without its flaws. It walks a sometimes uneasy line between gruesome, horror-movie violence, action and drama, but it still works pretty well. Wan seems to know the genre, but what really makes it work is his understanding of a key point – the vigilante hero should be a normal guy. Charles Bronson, even if the pre-vigilante moments in DEATH WISH, always looked ready to blow away any punks who messed with him. Ditto Bruce Willis. But Kevin Bacon? He’s a much lower-key presense, making his evolution into vigilante all the more convincing, and frightening.

What the movie also gets right is showing the cost of being a vigilante. When Bacon’s character takes the law into his own hands following the brutal murder of his son, he gets his crowning moment of vengeance. But the cost is huge, with him putting his family into the crosshairs of the psychotic baddie,(Garrett Hedlund in an early role), and Wan’s not afraid to go ultra dark. If you think Bacon’s family is going to emerge unscathed, oh boy are you wrong.

All of this adds up to a more sophisticated than usual vigilante movie, and while there’s plenty of really well-shot action, there’s an intriguing psychological layer, and Bacon really delivers. It doesn’t hurt than Wan supports him with folks like Kelly Preston, Aisha Tyler, and John Goodman – in a small but juicy role.

“Some folks have been bringing up my vigilante film, Death Sentence, to me recently. It’s on Netflix now! Check it out if you haven’t seen it — terrific cast in Kevin Bacon, John Goodman & Garrett Hedlund. My scariest film yet.” – James Wan - Twitter

BEST SCENE: Wan brought those slick moves he learned cutting his teeth on genre to DEATH SENTENCE’s top-shelf action scenes, and this tracking shot (something which has since become a gimmick but wasn’t in 2007) is a good example of that. The TAXI DRIVER-inspired shootout at the end is pretty solid too, but I don’t want to spoil that here.

SEE IT: DEATH SENTENCE is streaming on Netflix, and is also available on DVD/ Blu-ray.

PARTING SHOT: DEATH SENTENCE isn’t a perfect film, and it suffers from some scripting issues (the cops are way too callous), but overall it’s a damn fine addition to the vigilante genre, and a good example of this kind of movie done just right.

Source: JoBlo.com



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