With Death Sentence, James Wan continues to beat us over the head, though this time he has the decency to do so with some semblance of human emotion. A surprisingly sturdy and effective genre picture, the film has style and energy to spare, but ultimately fails in rectifying its own central conflicts, serving as a warning to the costs—emotional and otherwise—brought about by attempts to satiate one’s desire for revenge while also hypocritically encouraging and reveling in violent, shoot ‘em up confrontations. A reworked adaptation of Brian Garfield’s 1975 pulp novel of the same name, the film sees the successful everyman Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) losing his son to an inner city gang’s “initiation” killing, though his eyewitness account of the incident is unlikely to get the murderer more than a few years behind bars. In his anger, Nick forgoes prosecution and takes justice into his own hands—an act that results in a war between himself and the blood-bound gang he’s now offended.
Death Sentence acknowledges the lose-lose nature of Nick’s struggle but fails to give it more than passing notice, a major disappointment given how much of the film otherwise soars in its pulpy genre stylizations. Bacon, a veteran of many a wicked B movie, knows how to make this material work, creating a commanding presence where other actors might simply ham it up; his performance creates the emotional spinal column the film otherwise lacks. Although Jeffers’s screenplay stresses the motivations forcing both sides of the conflict into a perpetual bloodbath, these fail to translate into the film’s portrayed acts of violence between men. Wan’s action set pieces rock (particularly a bravura single-take chase scene through a parking garage), but, unlike John Woo’s The Killer (invoked here by the image of a dilapidated church), they signify nothing more than who is being shot at and by whom at any given time. Its downfalls notwithstanding, the film represents a significant step forward for Wan, whose previous Dead Silence represented the pinnacle of illogical, inept filmmaking. Here, though still a little rough around the edges, his impulses feel far more organic, and thus believable. And no film featuring a hilariously bug-eyed supporting performance by an F-bomb-dropping John Goodman can be all that bad.