Death Sentence (2007) / Action-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence and disturbing images
Running time: 105 min.

Cast: Kevin Bacon, Garrett Hedlund, Kelly Preston, Jordan Garrett, Stuart Lafferty, Aisha Tyler, John Goodman, Matt O'Leary, Edi Gathegi,
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (based on the novel by Brian Garfield)

Review published September 6, 2007

I haven't had a quiz for a while now.  I'm overdue.  Answer the following questions for your review of Death Sentence:

1. You're a father (Bacon, Hollow Man) who has just had a son (Lafferty) killed in a vicious gang initiation.  Your lawyer tells you that the best you can hope for is a plea bargain that might put the culprit away for 3 to 5 years.  Do you:

    a) Take your chances with the court system and hope justice prevails?
    b) Seek additional legal advice, perhaps getting a new attorney?
    c) Make sure the defendant gets off scot free, in case you decide later to kill him yourself?

2.  You're going to kill the person responsible for brutally slaying your son.  You have lots of cash available.  The man responsible is in a gang -- a gang who kills people on a regular basis.  Do you:

    a) Bide your time and wait for just the right moment, planning out your hit so that no one will ever suspect you?
    b) Contract out a professional to do the deed for you?
    c) Go into your garage and look through your tool box for a suitable weapon, then head out to "da hood" in your dress shirt and tie, trying not to draw attention to yourself?

3. You've just started an all-out blood war between yourself and one of the most vicious gangs in the city.  This gang has no compulsion about chasing you through the streets, firing weapons in broad daylight in front of dozens of eyewitnesses.  In the process of escaping, you end up killing another member of the close-knit gang family, further increasing their ire.  Do you:

    a) Get the 'F' outta Dodge?
    b) Call the cops and ask for protection?
    c) Put on your shirt and tie the next day, go to work at your usual time and hope it all blows over?

4. You're the leader (Hedlund, Georgia Rule) of a gang of killers who have been under police scrutiny for some time.  You want to get revenge for your slain brothers at the hands of some raging father.  Do you:

    a) Kill his family while he's at work?
    b) Wait for him to leave work and kill him, ending the feud?
    c) Send one of your gang brothers to deliver a package tipping him off that you're going to kill his family, and then him, and put in a phone number so that you can be traced by the authorities?

5.  A gang has sworn to kill you at any cost.  This gang has no problems getting any kind of weaponry they so desire.  One of their members has put life and limb on the line to deliver a sizable package.  The package is big enough to contain an explosive.  What do you do?

    a) Do not touch the package.  Call the cops and let them handle it.
    b) Tear off the wrapper.  Once you discover it's your briefcase, assume they have tampered with it, and let the bomb squad deal with any contents.
    c) Let curiosity get the best of you.  Open the briefcase in the middle of a crowded office.

6.  You've just talked to the head of a vicious street gang on the phone.  He knows where you live, and he has just told you he is going to kill your family.  Do you:

    a) Call your family immediately and tell them to get out of the house as soon as humanly possible?
    b) Call the cops immediately to go to your house and fetch your family, then call your family to tell them to hide, hoping the cops get there first?
    c) Call your family first and tell them that, whatever they do, stay in the house and wait until you get home.  Then, don't call '911', but instead, the phone number of the lead detective (Tyler, Balls of Fury) on the case and hope she answers her phone and can go to your house as well.

7.  You're the lead detective trying to protect a man whose life and family have just been threatened by a gang of killers who have broken nearly every crime in existence.  Do you:

    a) Advise the man to gather up everything he can and get out of town until the culprits are apprehended?
    b) Protect the man in any way you can, putting guards on all entrances to the house, and regular patrols to monitor the situation?
    c) Have one patrol car parked in the street in front of the house 100 feet away, with two officers in a prone position sitting idly in it?

8.  You're the lead detective in the crossfire of an escalating war of death between a suburban family and a vicious street gang.  The street gang kills two officers in cold blood, and are set to wipe out the family, regardless of who stands in their way.  They do get to the father, who ends up in a hospital, though the gang thinks he is dead for sure.  Do you:

    a) Get every available police officer on the case to round up the gang in as expedient a manner possible?
    b) Start gathering whatever evidence you can in order to prosecute these vermin to the fullest extent of the law?
    c) Let go of the member of the street gang you've captured earlier delivering a package containing evidence of a plan to murder, then put all of your time and resources into monitoring the comatose father, keeping him under tight lockdown in the hospital to be sure he doesn't get out and continue his revenge on the cop killer gang?

9.  You're a father who is going to make your final push to wipe out the killer street gang.  You've just gotten a hot tip as to their hidden lair.  Do you:

    a) Use the fact that they think you are dead in order to spring a major surprise on them, gaining the upper hand?
    b) Case the place and follow the leader of the gang, biding your time to get him alone where you can take him out without getting yourself killed in the process?
    c) Call them up and let them know you're alive and coming to get them?

10. You're a black market gun dealer (Goodman, Beyond the Sea) who is in charge of many illegal operations.  A strange man walks in uninvited, asking to buy a bunch of guns.  After he shows you a bag full of cash, do you:

    a) Assume he is a cop and deny all knowledge of any guns for sale?
    b) Assume he is a reporter and deny any guns for sale?
    c) Immediately open up your vault full of the hottest, most deadly illegal weapons and put them right in his hands?

11. You're a black market gun dealer who also happens to run a bunch of hoodlum street gangs.  You recognize that the man you've just sold weapons to is the man out to wipe out one of your family.  Plus he's given himself a Travis Bickle makeover, so you know he's nuts.  Do you:

    a) Kill the man immediately?
    b) Let the man go, but tell the gang to watch out?
    c) Head over to the hideout before the man gets there with the arsenal of weaponry you've just given him?

Answers: If you've answered c) to any of the above questions, congratulations!  You've just found a movie written at your level of mentality.  Go right out and plunk down whatever cash you have to finally see a film that knows how the criminal world and legal system operate.  If you've answered c) to ALL of the above questions, then you are the screenwriter, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers.  Congratulations!  You've actually managed to get a movie made without having to do a lick of research on street gangs, cops, or even fatherhood.  Based on the book by Brian Garfield, the man who wrote the novel that the very similarly executed Death Wish is based on, which is basically just a rehash. Cash that paycheck and find another half-baked plot to ramp up the sensationalism of, and get greenlit from studios to your heart's content!

There's about one scene where Death Sentence had me going, an elaborate chase in the streets between the gang and the father, culminating in a major showdown in a parking garage.  The single-take scene probably lasts 15 minutes or so, with little dialogue, but it's riveting, visceral, and memorable.  Alas, every single scene that follows it makes absolutely no sense from a logic standpoint, and none of the action comes remotely close.  We have a father who basically endangers his family for his own bloodlust, eschewing grief management counseling for himself and family ("We'll manage", he claims, as he plots his next murder), and puts his family directly in the line of fire.  And for what? 

I'm sure there will be people who read into this film, as they do for anything that pushes the envelope of violence, and think it's making some sort of commentary.  Is it about how violence begets violence?  Is it about how the legal system is a complete joke?  Is it an allegory for our war against terrorism, that would see us put our sons and daughters in harm's way simply because we are angry at our loss?  Even if it were any or all of these things, there's no reason for the film to completely make the story on the surface this difficult to buy into even on the most superficial of levels.  If you're going to tell a story, tell it right.

Only an hour and 45 minutes?  It can't be.  Death Sentence feels more like 25 to life.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo