If Death Sentence was made in 1974 it would have starred Joe Don Baker of Walking Tall fame and played the grindhouse circuit before disappearing from the big screen and waiting to be discovered anew in video bargain bins. As it is Kevin Bacon and Saw director James Wan have created a genre movie that out-genres Tarantino’s recent effort to revive the revenge film. It’s a pure 1970’s exploitation flick, done up 2007 style.
The plot would make Charles Bronson proud. When facially tattooed gang members brutally kill Nick Hume’s (Kevin Bacon) son while he stands helplessly by, he does what any father from the Roger Corman School of Good Parenting would do when his family has been torn apart by street thugs—he gets revenge. When the gang fights back, things get interesting—and bloody.
Like the first Saw movie, Death Sentence is essentially a poorly paced genre picture peppered with breathlessly memorable action scenes. Wan has revitalized the “urban terror” genre of the 1970s for the new millennium, but hasn’t changed the basic elements of the form too much. Like Death Wish and the classic big city revenge films, a nice family gets turned upside down by very bad people, and the patriarch must go against his nature to get payback when the justice system fails to provide proper closure.
Bacon believably delivers the goods as an executive turned vigilante. Shaving his head and toting very large guns he channels his inner Travis Bickle to create a genre specific portrayal of a man pushed too far. Aisha Tyler, best known as Ross’s love interest in Friends, makes the most of the underwritten role of the investigating police sergeant. She’s not given much to do, but uses her best Pam Grier attitude to do it.
Most fun of all is illegal gunsmith John Goodman. He’s so grimy, so smarmily great as the conscious-free Bones Darley that you’ll want to take a shower after seeing his sweaty face on screen. He’s part used car salesman, part merchant of death when he offers up a variety of firearms to Hume with the line, “Any one of these is bound to make you feel better about what’s bothering you.”
Death Sentence is for fans of the genre only. If you like a bit of good old fashioned revenge mixed with your mayhem, then this movie is for you.