It you want to see a movie that so perfectly encapsulates deux ex machina look no further than James Wan’s Death Sentence. It’s an unoriginal piece of filmmaking that hinges on one of the biggest horror cliches in the book. It’s a shame because director Wan definitely has an eye for action and suspense. Indeed, Death Sentence (about a man driven to revenge after his son is murdered and his family terrorised by a urban gang) might be messy but it’s taut and intriguing when Wan concentrates on his action sequences. It isn’t surprising since this is the writer-director who brought us the brilliant Saw.
What is rather discouraging is the fact his blood-splattered revenge movie lacks Saw’s unique ability to stay one step ahead of the discerning horror fan or even casual viewer. The grander scale of Death Sentence seems to limit the effectiveness of Wan’s directorial capabilities proving that bigger budgets and bigger stars hinder the talents of those once forced to utilise the reigned-in limitations of low-budget independent cinema. When Wan attempts to be subtle in Death Sentence we find the film digress to colourless melodrama and soap-opera styling.
It’s also a shame that although the film does have a few twists they can’t help the fact it’s all in the wake of better cinematic excursions. As a take on I Spit On Your Grave, Death Sentence doesn’t have the political or socialistic undertones, while it doesn’t hold a candle to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Wan is a long way from creating the characterisation and tone of something like Deliverance, while his film lacks the vitality and overpowering tension of Dead Man’s Shoes. The film also lacks a strong central performance largely because Bacon’s Hume isn’t as well-written as say William Foster who was so brilliantly embodied by Micheal Douglas in Falling Down. Yet, the film begs and borrows from the more assured hands that feed it, and there is no more damaging criticism than the obvious truth: we’ve seen much better many times before.
Perhaps Wan’s main point here is how a man (in this case Kevin Bacon’s Mike Hume) degenerates from a loving father to a bloodied, shaven-headed killer. This is without a doubt the film’s most interesting aspect (albeit an inspired one) but it’s also the most poorly handled. It goes back to the beginning of the movie when the murder of his son takes place. They stop for petrol at a filling station because, quite out of the blue, Hume runs out of the stuff just after picking up his son from a hockey match. Immediately, I switched off. I couldn’t believe the film hinged on the most over-used cliche in book. This sets precedence the film never recovers from. Hume’s degeneration is based solely on unbelievable, poorly executed plot points and fake aesthetics. Are we really to believe shaving your head makes you immune to pain and a marksman with a shotgun? The film’s worst scene comes when, after buying what can only be called a “shit-load of guns”, Bacon uses a how-to manual to learn how to use, fire, load and reload the weapons. He clearly struggles as he drops bullets and can’t load them properly. Suddenly, seconds later, after shaving his head and turning a solemn, bemused facial expression into stone-faced anger, he’s John J. Rambo. It’s the worst way to use a montage sequence and Wan does it clearly believing his audience are pre-schoolers (a fatal mistake since such young children wouldn’t even be allowed into the theatre to watch the movie).
As an action film it’s better than average: at times, taut and engaging. But as a piece of cinema that looks at one man’s destruction and the fall of patriarchal society, it’s soap-opera with Hollywood bells and whistles.
Written by Dan Stephens