When I go see a Kevin Bacon film, I have come to expect a certain level of quality. Like anything else, most people have expectations when they walk into a film. You’ve seen the trailers and noted the actors and based on those things, there is a certain implied contract between the film and the audience. This is why Adam Sandler or Mike Myers rarely work when cast in a serious film. So when I went to see the new revenge thriller Death Sentence, I expected a thought provoking film, one which ruminated on the topics of death and revenge. And for the first 30 minutes or so, that’s exactly what I got.
Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, a risk assessment manager at a large, upscale insurance firm who, on the way home from a hockey game with his son, stops for gas in a seedy part of town. Very quickly things fall apart as a gang of street thugs burst into the gas station’s convenience store and proceed to slash the throat of Hume’s eldest as part of a gang initiation. The boy dies and Hume wants the killer, who’s been caught and identified, put away forever. When things go awry in the courtroom and the kid walks, Hume decides he must do something about it. But he doesn’t know what that is and it’s in these types of morally conflicted roles where Bacon thrives. We can see the pain and anguish of losing a child in his eyes. Through him we see how he must gingerly maintain his relationship with his wife (Kelly Preston). We even get a glimpse of how he must hide his intentions from his second son (played heart-wrenchingly well by Jordan Garrett), the one who didn’t die. As we watch, Bacon transforms Hume into a man trying to get some sense of identity back. When his son was killed, he lost the role of father, of family protector.
He heads out to confront the killer and in the ensuing fight, quite unintentionally, Hume stabs and fatally wounds the man who took his son’s life. I say unintentionally because of the way Hume reacts. It appears that what was intended as a balance measure, a biblical “eye for an eye” retribution, falls on Hume with all the weight of human misery. He has taken a life and it is a real, painful thing. This realization hits home while Hume is in the shower and, in a wordless moment, Bacon shows why he is one of the finest actors of his generation.
And then the film begins to unravel. Director James Wan, the man behind Saw, reverts to his fallback position, that of simple revenge plot. This is fine for a generation raised on Grand Theft Auto, but for the older audience, it is an unfulfilled promise. What started out as a grim, realistic portrayal, devolves, by the end of almost two hours into a film with unintentional laughter and a main character who has become a parody of Charles Bronson inDeath Wish (which, ironically, was the prequel to the book by Brian Garfield this film is based on). The only upswing in this downfall is a scene with John Goodman as an illegal gun dealer. In it, we get another view of fatherhood and the responsibilities inherent therein.
So, by the time all is said and done, we’ve gotten some top notch performances (the sole exception being Aisha Tyler who is given very little in the way of good dialogue to work with and really is just outclassed as a dramatic actress) and a solid start, but with a director unsure of himself, the end result is like having too many cooks in the kitchen – sure there’s a meal coming, but is it really something you want to eat?
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)