Viewers in search of the high-powered vigilantism of Charles Bronson in Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) will be disappointed with James Wan’s Death Sentence. Though this isn’t exactly a remake of the Winner film. Rather it’s an adaptation of Death Wish author Brian Garfield’s 1975 novel Death Sentence—a related work penned by Garfield in reaction to the unrestrained pro-vigilante antics of the Winner movie. The idea was to present the downside to—the price of—vigilante justice. Not having read the book, I can’t say if Wan’s film is anything like an accurate reflection of its literary parent. If it is, then Garfield cooked up a pretty muddled rebuttal to the Bronson “heroics” of Winner’s film.
In any case, Wan and newcomer screenwriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers have crafted an alternately dull, unintentionally funny and rather ugly movie that wants to have its revenge and decry it, too. What they’ve got is basically a Death Wish that concludes that Death Wish is bad. That works about as well as you’d imagine.
The setup is largely interchangeable with Death Wish: Mild-mannered Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is driven to taking the law into his own hands when the thug (Matt O’Leary, Live Free or Die Hard) who killed his son (Stuart Lafferty) gets away scot-free. The difference is that Nick has a family, which means that the late thug’s gang is going to have their revenge on him and his. In other words, it’s going to be an eye for an eye until the stage is littered with more corpses than a Shakespeare tragedy.
The central problem with Death Sentence as it stands is that it’s predicated on amassing as much ineptitude as possible. It’s grounded in the most inept gang in the world meeting the most inept cops in the world with a lot of help from the most inept judicial system in the world—all topped off with Kevin Bacon as the most inept vigilante in the world (at least for three-quarters of the movie). Everything works only because all the characters behave as if they’d be lucky to have two functioning brain cells. We have a neophyte vigilante who just casually drives his middle-class car into an obviously dangerous neighborhood and then leaves his keys in the vehicle while he saunters over to have his revenge! It seems he assumes no one will notice either the car or him. And then he’s actually surprised when both the gang and the police figure out who done it? Please. Then there’s the gang itself. I presume they’re all played by different actors, but with their shaved heads and garishly tattooed bodies the only time I was 100 percent sure who was who was when their single black gang member (Edi Gethegi, Crank) was on-screen, and that may have been because his head wasn’t shaved. Typically, these fellows are the original gang who can’t shoot straight or do much of anything right, since Nick, who isn’t exactly competent, bests them at every turn.
Worse, all the action is preposterous. No sooner has the original killer gotten away from Nick at the scene of the crime than he’s plowed into by a car at a high rate of speed. Yet he’s somehow in the police lineup a scene or two later, a little bruised and scraped. Thanks to the miracle of montage, Nick goes from being a guy who fumbles when he loads a revolver to Rambo in under three minutes. The less said about John Goodman as a sweaty underworld arms dealer (and father of the gang leader), the kinder. Any limited credibility Wan had for making a serious film goes out the window with in-joke nods to both his Dead Silence (Judith Roberts who played the murderous Mary Shaw in the earlier film appears here as “Judge Shaw”) and Saw (the Jigsaw clown mask is worked into the graffiti on a parking garage wall). Of course, there was never that much to compromise anyway. Rated R for strong bloody brutal violence and pervasive language.