An ordinary family man makes enemies with the wrong gang — and vice versa — in the blood-soaked revenge thriller “Death Sentence.” This well-made, often intensely gripping genre piece packs some bizarre tonal extremities and a few moments of self-critique into its tale of a grieving father seeking his own brand of justice, but action buffs won’t get too hung up on ethical considerations amid all the rousing gunplay and arterial splatter. A confident lead turn by Kevin Bacon and lack of heavyweight competition could enable a minor B.O. killing, with likely superb execution in ancillary.
It’s a season of payback on American movie screens, what with the recent Rosario Dawson rape-and-revenge saga “Descent,” the forthcoming Jodie Foster vigilante picture “The Brave One” and now this loose adaptation of a 1975 novel by Brian Garfield. While the book reps a sequel to Garfield’s 1972 bestseller “Death Wish,” Ian Mackenzie Jeffers’ script introduces a fresh set of characters and circumstances, albeit with a similar dad-on-a-killing-spree hook.
Straight-laced businessman Nick (Bacon) has a loving wife (Kelly Preston) and two sons, Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) and Lucas (Jordan Garrett). Pic opens with three minutes of grainy camcorder footage showing the family in idyllic, pre-traumatic bliss. Unsubtle dialogue foreshadowing (“Could we all be civilized, just for once, before I kill somebody?” Nick quips) preps the viewer for the worst.
En route back to their suburban home one night after a hockey game, Nick and Brendan stop at a gas station in a seedy district — just as several heavily armed gangsters arrive. Sequence emphasizes Nick’s utter helplessness as he watches the youngest of the group, Joe Darly (Matthew O’Leary), fatally slice Brendan with a machete.
Joe is arrested shortly thereafter, but Nick, realizing the perp won’t do hard time, withdraws his testimony and instead trails Joe back to his digs. Their subsequent raw, roughly staged encounter leaves the thug dead and Nick horrified at his actions. It also leaves Joe’s vicious older brother, chrome-dome gang leader Billy (Garrett Hedlund), with his own desire for revenge.
Violence begets violence, giving director James Wan (“Saw”) the chance to choreograph bravura action, especially a lengthy chase that culminates in the pic’s best sequence, set in and atop a parking structure. Bacon realistically conveys Nick’s helplessness and self-revulsion at every step, making his inevitable (if tacked-on) transformation into a leather-clad skinhead badass both exciting and a bit hard to swallow. The genre simply demands it (as does Fox’s ad campaign, with its noirish Bacon-with-a-baseball-bat imagery).
“Death Sentence” is set at the crossroads of suburbia and gang warfare (well-captured by the pic’s Columbia, S.C., locales), an intersection surreal enough to push the film into some very odd tonal territory. Dramatic moments are underscored by excessive quasi-celestial crooning and conveniently timed torrential rains, while a strain of grim humor rears its head elsewhere, notably in the form of a gruff arms dealer (memorably played by John Goodman).
Not without its scruples, the screenplay dutifully questions its protag’s vengeful impulses, stuffing some of its critique into the mouth of a stern but sympathetic detective (Aisha Tyler). Apart from the gunslingers’ very poor aim, the pic neither lets Nick off the hook nor soft-pedals the consequences of his actions, and the fact he has two very vulnerable loved ones to protect affords the proceedings a tragic heft.
Cinematographer John R. Leonetti gives the pic an ostentatiously gritty, grimy look, with a color scheme straight out of your local sewer. Handheld camerawork and well-orchestrated long takes punch up the action impressively at key intervals.