Before succumbing to contrived melodramatics, Felon proves a proficiently acted, resolutely realistic story about the means by which events—and one’s future—can hopelessly spiral out of control courtesy of a confluence of unexpected events. About to marry his longtime girlfriend and baby mama Laura (Marisol Nichols), and on the cusp of expanding his successful contracting business, Wade (Stephen Dorff) finds himself instead heading to prison after killing—in a reasonable but technically criminal manner—a home intruder. Forced to swallow a plea-bargained three-year sentence, Wade immediately winds up in a prison facility for hard cases run by Lt. Jackson (Harold Perrineau), whose sadistic tendencies involve staging yard fights between inmates for entertainment and wagering purposes.
Aside from the occasional ultra-close-up, writer-director Roc Roman Waugh crafts his narrative with a minimum of aesthetic or screenwriting affectation, his situations and characters’ emotions imbued with a tough, no-frills credibility. Dorff’s grounded, carefully modulated turn is the film’s plausible center, defined by desperate kill-or-be-killed survival-instinct pragmatism and, more grippingly, believable stone-cold terror at being trapped in a madhouse full of caged psychopaths. Wade soon gets a cellmate in John Smith (Val Kilmer), a goateed, tattooed lifer in the clink for killing the extended families of the men who slaughtered his wife and daughter. Smith’s growing fondness for Wade is rooted in a shared respect for cherishing and protecting family. And his belief that one’s conception of time gets screwy when life becomes defined by a single action speaks to both men’s knowledge that security, happiness and grand plans are precarious.
Yet after economically establishing Wade and Smith’s common bonds, as well as Laura’s own torment and the way random tragedy mars Jackson’s superficially cheery private life, Felon flounders in convincingly resolving its protagonist’s plight. Discarding blunt truthfulness for increasingly false plot machinations, Waugh’s drama culminates with a Rocky III-ish fight between Wade and a mohawked Mr. T stand-in, a last-gasp scheme to secure release from prison involving the Feds and Smith’s former guard (Sam Shepard), and, ultimately, the sort of hokey, everyone-gets-what-they-deserve happy ending which the film has previously posited as dangerously fragile and unreliable.