Death Sentence

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NEW YORK -- Crime rates might be dropping nationwide, but you wouldn't know from the new wave of vigilante-themed films that has inexplicably begun. Beating the Jodie Foster starrer "The Brave One" by a couple of weeks, James Wan's "Death Sentence" demonstrates that first is not necessarily best.

This effort starring Kevin Bacon bears more than a slight connection to the landmark of the genre, 1974's "Death Wish," starring Charles Bronson. It is based on novelist Brian Garfield's sequel to his original book, though any resemblance is tenuous at best.

Bacon plays Nick Hume, a family man with a loving wife (Kelly Preston) and two kids who, in the screenplay's obvious attempt at irony, works at an insurance company where he must constantly compute the odds for catastrophe. His own life comes crashing down late one night when, stopping at a gas station in an unsafe neighborhood, his eldest son (Stuart Lafferty) is brutally murdered by Joe Darley (Matt O'Leary), a young hoodlum undergoing a gang initiation.

Nick impulsively recants his witness testimony at a pretrial hearing, setting the stage for him to achieve vengeance on his own. He follows the culprit to a deserted location the next night and winds up stabbing him to death after an intense struggle. It doesn't take long before the gang's leader, Billy (Garrett Hedlund), who also happens to be Joe's brother, figures out who did it, leading to a series of ever-escalating violent confrontations between Nick and the gang members.

While it certainly was an exploitation picture, "Death Wish" was highly effective because it always stayed grounded in reality. Director Wan ("Saw") inevitably goes for a more heightened approach. The gang members look like something out of "Mad Max"; Nick almost is instantly transformed from a mild-mannered insurance executive to a rampaging action hero, ultimately resembling a cross between Rambo and Travis Bickle; and the highly stylized visuals are luridly gothic. The nearly constant violence, too, is of the highly graphic variety, with endless amounts of blood spurting, exploding body parts and severed limbs. What makes the proceedings even more ludicrous is the screenplay's half-hearted attempt to infuse depth into its depiction of Nick's transformation.

The one truly effective sequence is a thrilling foot chase in which Bacon is pursued by the gang through streets, alleyways, buildings and an open-air parking garage, a good part of which was filmed by Wan and his team of cameramen in a virtuosic single take.

Bacon goes through his frequently athletic paces with the requisite intensity; Hedlund makes a formidably scary villain, and John Goodman has a terrifically pungent cameo as a skuzzy gun dealer. Aisha Tyler plays a concerned police detective.

DEATH SENTENCE
20th Century Fox
A 20th Century Fox and Hyde Park Entertainment presentation
Ashok Amritraj/Baldwin Entertainment Group
Credits:
Director: James Wan: Screenwriter: Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Producers: Ashok Amritraj, Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin
Executive producers
Andrew Sugerman, Nick Morton, Nick Hamson, Lars Sylvest
Director of photography
John R. Leonetti
Production designer: Julie Berghoff
Music: Charlie Clouser
Co-producer: Eric Mitchell
Costume designer: Kristin M. Burke
Editor: Michael N. Knue
Cast:
Nick Hume: Kevin Bacon
Billy Darley: Garrett Hedlund
Helen Hume: Kelly Preston
Detective Wallis: Aisha Tyler
Bones Darley: John Goodman
Running time -- 111 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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