James Wan’s 2007 Vigilante Thriller Death Sentence came and went without much of a noise, despite a terrific starring turn from Kevin Bacon. Sandwiched between Saw (2004) and Insidious (2010), and released the same year as the enjoyably silly Dead Silence, it was perhaps too soon for Wan to break out of the Horror genre – a change later afforded to him by Furious 7 (2015) – all of which is a shame considering how effective the film is at both critiquing the genre and indulging in many of its pleasures.
The set-up is familiar, happy family man Bacon has it all – a high powered job in insurance, a happy home (neatly communicated through an opening montage of home videos) comprising a wife (Kelly Preston) and two sons (one that Bacon clearly prefers – adding an interesting edge to the proceedings). As the genre demands the family is threatened, and one of Wan’s innovations is to have the preferred son murdered during a gang initiation, rather that following the Michael Winner Death Wish route of raping/murdering the wife. It’s a random attack, and Bacon easily identifies the killer – but the DA’s determination to cut a deal, reducing the killer’s sentence, sends Bacon off on his own quest to find justice.
From here the film plays it trump card; instead of simply watching Bacon follow through on his Vigilante desires, the film tackles the issues caused by this escalation of violence; he kills one of the gang, they then come for him; he kills another, they come for his family. In this, borrowing the spirit of Brian Garfield’s novel Death Sentence (a sequel to his Death Wish) if not the plot or characters, the film begins to suggest that Bacon’s quest causes more issues than it solves. Bacon’s transformation is electric, reminding us, again, how good a performer he is; his first killing is an accident, his second self-defence, by the end he has become a shaven haired angel of death, happily blowing the legs of anonymous goons; he becomes indistinguishable from the very gang members he hunts, suggesting the corrupting power of violence.
Two set pieces stand out, one in a multi-story carpark with excellent cinematography and stunt work, and the finale where the film, perhaps, goes a little over the top in indulging in the very violence much of the film critiques. Wan stages the violence well, keeping a keen eye on the geography and editing for clarity, rather then chopping the hell out of the action like so many filmmakers insist. Alongside Bacon, Garrett Hedlund is good and scuzzy as the gang leader and John Goodman makes a nice cameo as a bespectacled gun-dealer. Preston is also good, reminding us of what a good actress we lost in 2020.
Wan clearly knows his Death Wish films and makes nods towards Taxi Driver. Death Sentence manages to both inhabit the genre and provide some surprises along the way.