Opens: Friday, July 18.

”Felon” reworks many of the conventions of prison movies that have gripped audiences since “The Big House” in 1930.

In this case, familiarity breeds pleasure rather than contempt. Directed with pounding energy by Ric Roman Waugh and acted to the hilt by a cast comprising several of yesterday’s stars proving their mettle, the movie delivers the thrills and emotion that prison movies require. Although it aims to make a case for prison reform, it essentially is a solid B-movie with just a few pretensions. Boxoffice returns will be limited, but the film will please its core audience.

Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) is a struggling blue-collar worker hoping to start his own business. When a burglar breaks into the home he shares with his fiancee (Marisol Nichols) and their young son, Wade overreacts and beats the unarmed man to death. He’s charged with murder, then agrees to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Wade accepts a reduced prison term but is thrust into a nightmarish situation at a high-security prison ruled by a sadistic guard (Harold Perrineau).

Most of the beats of the story are fairly easy to predict, but Waugh, a former stuntman, doesn’t allow us much time to nitpick. Editing is razor-sharp, and the atmosphere on the yard is caught in all of its bruising intensity.

Dorff showed talent in such ‘90s films as “Backbeat” and “I Shot Andy Warhol,” but he’s had limited opportunities in recent years. This juicy role allows him to demonstrate his coiled power. Perrineau, who appeared with Dorff a decade ago in “Blood and Wine,” plays effectively against type as a hard-nosed tyrant. While Sam Shepard’s role as a morally upright warden is stock, the actor lends a certain gravitas to the film.

The most startling performance comes from Val Kilmer as Wade’s hardened cellmate, a man who combines bitterness with wisdom. Although Kilmer’s character has committed heinous acts, the actor brings a genuinely tragic dimension to his portrayal.

Aside from a few overly arty shots, technical credits are strong; the film makes excellent use of the Santa Fe settings, including the New Mexico State Penitentiary. Viewers, like the inmates, will feel the walls closing in.

Production: Stage 6 Films.
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Val Kilmer, Harold Perrineau, Marisol Nichols, Anne Archer, Sam Shepard. Director-screenwriter: Ric Roman Waugh. Producers: Tucker Tooley, Dan Keston. Executive producers: Vincent Newman, Stephen Dorff, David Peters. Director of photography: Dana Gonzales. Production designer: Vincent Reynaud. Music: Gerhard Daum. Costume designer: Meriwether Nichols. Editor: Jonathan Chibnall.
Rated R, 103 minutes.

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