The closely contemporaneous release of two vigilante movies with more or less the same starting point—a close family member senselessly murdered by inner-city thugs—allows for a fascinating contrast in style. Death Sentence, from Saw director James Wan, and the upcoming The Brave One, from the more high-toned Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The End Of The Affair), both reach the conclusion that revenge, no matter how righteous its intent, coarsens the avenger's soul. And yet the differences between the two are like Chardonnay and rotgut: Jordan's is a somber, elegantly wrought mood-piece, while Wan's aims straight for the stomach lining. It's tempting to call Death Sentence the more "honest" of the two, since it's less ashamed to paddle around in the muck, but Wan often lets his guileless enthusiasm get the better of him.
Though it has at least 20 minutes too much slack, Death Sentence doesn't waste much time with scene-setting. It just establishes Kevin Bacon as a happy middle-class father with a wife (Kelly Preston, dreadful as ever) and two teenage sons. After his eldest son's hockey game, Bacon stops at a seedy gas station, where he sees his boy slashed with a machete as part of a gang initiation ritual. Bacon gets a good look at his son's killer, and picks him out of a lineup in short order, but since he's the only witness and the murder weapon can't be found, the government prosecutor can only promise a few years' conviction for the crime. So Bacon takes the law into his own hands and stabs the young hoodlum to death. But before long, the other gang members, led by Garrett Hedlund, figure out what happened to their friend, and they strike back hard.
As much as either of the movies that comprised Grindhouse, Death Sentence evokes the low-down spirit of an early-'70s exploitation flick, something that might have filled the undercard at a drive-in or a long-in-the-tooth movie palace. The film has one thing going for it—it's certainly never boring. Not long after Bacon takes up arms, his Everyman image evaporates, and he turns into an outlandish anti-hero, like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle recast as an angel of vengeance in a graphic novel. Wan misses some prime opportunities for fish-out-of-water comedy, as each side looks conspicuously silly on the other's turf. But Wan isn't the sort to sweat over the details; he's too busy jamming the accelerator to realize that his movie's spinning out of control.