There are quite a few things about “Death Sentence” that are truly commendable but even more of it needs to be criticized. It’s just another vengeance-soaked tale, from the author of “Death Wish” (itself turned into a classic Charles Bronson film directed by Michael Winner), which lacks in originality but makes up for that with its oddly uneven tone. What begins as a family drama centered around the tragic loss of their son, somehow manages to turn into an over-the-top action extravaganza.
Nick Hume’s (Kevin Bacon) family life is just about perfect. His relationship with his wife, Helen (Kelly Preston), appears to be as fresh as the day they first started dating. His two sons, Lucas (Jordan Garrett) and Brendan (Stuart Lafferty), counter balance each other, as one is the artsy type (Lucas) and the other is the jock (Brendan). Everything in Hume’s life is going good. Brendan is then invited to play a hockey game in the city one evening and Nick gives him a lift. After the game, they head home through a shadier part of town, and end up having to stop for gas. When Brendan goes inside to grab a slushy, a few masked gang members burst in and kill the cashier, before slitting Brendan’s throat.
The film then focuses on the Hume family and how they now must deal with the loss. It’s the most interesting part of the film, carried wonderfully by the performances from both Bacon and Preston. Nick puts all the blame on himself as he feels there was something he could have done to prevent it. Helen deals with the tragedy mostly through silent facial expressions powerful enough to express one would imagine a mother losing her son. Then there is Lucas, who is the most vocal about it. He contemplates if his parents wish it were he instead of Brendan, since he was the one with the most promising future.
Here is where the film takes a u-turn. A lack of evidence and witnesses allow the person responsible for Brendan’s death to walk free without legal punishment. So Nick decides to take the law into his own hands. Soon, the vengeance factor gets out of control as you quickly lose track over who is killing whom and for what reason. An all out war rages between Nick and the gang.
The actual gang members themselves are just one of the film’s weak points. You typically don’t expect Shakespeare-esque dialogue from these sort of characters but the words they do spit are cliché and about as uninteresting as the characters themselves. We spend almost as much time with the gang as we do with the Hume family. The drama is then destroyed with the almost laughable performances of all of the gang’s members and the ridiculously corny dilemma they face.
Then comes the violence factor… Nick’s life prior to this incident was absent from all conflict. Now violence plays a very important and shockingly impacting role in his life. Director James Wan (“Saw”) focuses on body parts exploding and limbs flying as they are separated by gunfire, only he uses computer-generated imagery for the blood splatter, instead of the use of fake blood. Therefore we as an audience can tell it’s not really there and the moment is ruined. How are we to be impacted by these shockingly horrific deeds, as we should be, if we are easily able to tell how fake the results are?
David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” shows us an almost similar predicament. In that film, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) played a father with an equally perfect family life. When his past comes back to haunt him, he takes extreme measures, much like Nick does in this film, to protect his family. Cronenberg chose to execute these actions with real fake blood. It’s easier to throw yourself into the world created on screen when the elements look present and somewhat believable. Computers often fail to create such a world.
There is a good film hidden somewhere in “Death Sentence” and we probably would’ve seen it in the hands of a different, even subtler, director. It looks and feels just like the first “Saw” film does with everything being thrown in your face. This wasn’t the story for that sort of direction. His musical score choice, composed by Charlie Clouser (who scored all of the “Saw” films), is about as over-the-top as some of the action pieces. Every scene the score plays over gives the feeling that something is going to explode every single minute – even when the scenes are simple dialogue exchanges between characters.
The action sequences are still pretty imaginative, if not nonsensical. You’ll even find yourself laughing at a good portion, especially the gang, as they shoot various guns in Nick’s direction and miss every time. How can a gang be considered threatening when they have worse aim than Helen Keller? Still, if you can ignore all of these flaws, there is somewhat of a mindlessly good time to be had.