In the '70s, New York City's economic malaise bred exploitation films like Death Wish, where complicated social problems were handled with brutal tidiness. Today, when news of racial and religious intolerance wafts in daily from less populated parts of the country, we get a movie like As Good As Dead, a crude externalization of xenophobic fears shaped, at least for a while, into a halfway decent thriller.
An opening flashback establishes the external threat: a Southern skinhead church, decked out in Nazi-influenced iconography, where Reverend Kalahan (Brian Cox) spouts off a fiery, race-war invoking rant. Kalahan (notice the K) bears a slight similarity to Anton LaVey, and his words end up inciting a mentally ill parishioner, who responds by blasting away at a school bus full of ethnic children.
Everything you'd need to know about the level of discourse to be presented is apparent in these first five minutes, but the kind of slow-burning dread the film is striving for hardly requires complexity. Two of the hatemongers show up in New York on the trail of Ethan Belfrage (Cary Elwes), an equally flat abstract who walks his dog, hails taxis, and carries around a Whole Foods shopping bag. Blaming him for the death of Kalahan, who's since been murdered, they rough Ethan up and hogtie him, bringing a dose of broad backwoods ignorance to his cushy downtown apartment.
From there, As Good As Dead hunkers down patiently in the apartment. Ethan desperately proclaims his innocence; the racists, led by Aaron (Frank Whaley), a sweet-talking sociopath with an SS neck tattoo, don't believe him. The time here is well spent, centered on a cat-and-mouse game of torture and escape that's tense and unforgiving but never excessively vicious.
Elwes, who spent a lot of time in similar circumstances in the first Saw movie, is mostly here to get messed up, whether it's by being locked in his fridge or forced to stand on broken glass. There's not much to his performance, aside from a hammy local accent that sounds half De Niro, half Cagney. Whaley, on the other hand, is better than the film requires; his is a chilling performance that grants the torture scenes some semblance of class.
Yet despite its slick invocation of political concepts, As Good As Dead is never anything more than timely junk. What works about it comes mostly through its use of setting and its persistently slow pace, taking the time and care to adequately ramp up the tension. Yet like so many modern thrillers, the film can't help itself from getting greedy, throwing in the kind of hollow last-minute twist that rips the spine out of the entire story.
Imagine if Death Wish ended by revealing that Paul Kersey had actually taken out a hit on his family. Crippled by a similarly batshit outcome, even the best parts of the film are pushed down into the muck, comprising a hugely flawed product that trades in ugliness and fear.