Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: You've never heard of this movie, right? Or maybe you sort of remember when it was in theaters for five minutes in 2007. It fell by the wayside pretty quickly, even though it was written and directed by James Wan, the man responsible for Saw. In any case, it was roundly savaged by critics, receiving 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 36 on Metacritic. Our own Scott Tobias gave it a slightly positive review, rightfully stating that it's never boring. I can agree with that, at least.
Curiosity factor: It looks like a stylish revenge thriller, with plenty of boom and bang. In spite of all that it spawned, I remember liking Saw those many years ago. I have nothing against Kevin Bacon except his music career, and maybe Digging To China, though I haven't actually seen it. And again: revenge movie. Bad things happen to everyday good guy, good guy kicks ass, and justice is served. Some commenter called it "Bacon does Bronson," and I think I might like that just fine.
The viewing experience: But. And that's a big but. Death Sentence fails miserably by trying to be so much more than a simple revenge thriller. It tries to be a new kind of revenge thriller by telling us that revenge never really satisfies anyone—forgetting that pretty much every revenge thriller tries to convey that message in some way. It's a moral muddle filled with broadly drawn, cartoonish actors that get lost somewhere between Death Wish and a Lifetime movie. In other words, it isn't bad enough to be "so bad it's good," and very little about it is entertaining.
I should have known based on the trailers on the DVD: There was Hitman, which I actually sorta liked, then some alligator movie, then The Comebacks. I chose to watch the unrated version, naturally. Anyway, the setup: Kevin Bacon is, like, the nicest guy ever. He has a beautiful wife (played by Kelly Preston) and two wonderful sons who, even though they bicker, are really wonderful. Nothing could be more perfect. Bacon even works at an investment firm, and when the chance to screw some former employee's family out of a pension (or some nonsense) comes up, he doesn't do it. The movie goes out of its way to show us what a prudent, reasonable pussy we're dealing with.
Then things go bad. We know Bacon and his older son are in a bad neighborhood because there are homeless people standing around an oil-can fire. And when the most prudent guy in the universe runs out of gas, he must stop at such a place. His son, who loves Slushees and must have one, goes into the least-likely gas station in the world to get one. Then the least-likely gang in the world shows up. They kill the owner and slice Bacon's son's throat open with a machete. Oh, did I mention they're driving highly customized, totally identifiable cars? Yes, they are.
Anyway, Bacon can't save his son, but he does manage to unmask the murderer, who is arrested after being hit by a car. Then, in the least-plausible "Doesn't the system suck?" scene in history, the prosecutor tells him that the kid might get three to five years. And they aren't even looking for the rest of the gang. C'mon, this is some rich, white suburban dude whose son is killed by "street thugs"—his golf buddy is gonna put the kid away for life. Anyway, the rest of the gang is where it gets really funny: These multi-generational, multicultural dudes straight out of central casting. They cook meth or something, but mostly they just look and act as totally conspicuous as possible. When their buddy walks (after Bacon decides on revenge and refuses to testify), they pick him up in the same cars they committed the crimes in.
I'm just gonna go ahead and say this now: Spoiler alert. But keep reading, because you really don't need to see Death Sentence. It's not good.
In a movie like Hitman, belief is suspended before you pop the DVD into the player. The premise is ridiculous, but you go with it because that's the type of movie you're prepared for. With Death Sentence, I had some trouble—as did the filmmakers—reconciling expectations. We're supposed to believe that Kevin Bacon is this milquetoast dude who loves his family, but then he snaps and begins to murder the gang that killed his son. Fine, and I'm with it up through Bacon's first victim, whom he battles and "accidentally" stabs. Then he cries about it. The movie could have ended there; then it would have aired on Lifetime, with a coda about grief counseling.
But then it jumps up out of the water and flops around like a half-dead fish, trying to decide what kind of person Kevin Bacon is—and trying to please pretty much every potential audience member on earth. Do you feel like he's justified in killing the baddies? Or does revenge always lead to more trouble? Do you want to see the dire consequences of blind rage, or would you rather see a dude shave his head, buy some guns, and shoot some fuckers in the head? It's all here, all stirred into one strange soup.
Bacon feels remorse, but gets a little charge out of killing the kid who killed his kid. When the cartoon gang—did I mention their matching tattoos or their incredible overacting yet?—finds out that Bacon killed their pal (actually the brother of the gang leader!), they seek a little revenge of their own. And because they're such a smart, well-organized gang, they sneak up on him in the street and start shooting wildly at him. You can actually see the point at which Death Sentence tips from gritty and realistic to simply silly: It's when Bacon—remember, he's supposed to be a wuss—fights one of the baddies in a car that's slowly moving off the roof of a parking garage.
Eventually there's a huge back-and-forth between the gang and Bacon—he seeks them out, they seek him out, everybody wants to kill everybody else. There's a pretty sweet foot-chase through one of those alleys that only exist in the movies, and some of the shots are pretty stylish. Of course, the gang finds Bacon's family, and after a huge fight in the house, they shoot everybody—Bacon, his wife, his other son. And even though they're a totally badass brutal gang that's been shooting people with shotguns for the entire movie, they somehow manage to NOT kill both Bacon and his son.
When Bacon wakes up in the hospital, he has an epiphany, aided by the most rote police detective in movie history… played by Aisha Tyler. (WTF?) She says things like "You make war on the wrong dog, did you?" and warns Bacon against further revenge. She's the voice of reason, which is clearly why Bacon can't be bothered to listen. (At one point, she says with a straight face, "Don't worry, we put out an APB on Billy and his gang.") So, after an hour's worth of cockteasing and the threat of lessons to be learned, Bacon goes all Travis Bickle. Remember how normal he was just 45 minutes ago? Now he's gonna shave his head, buy some guns, and do some people-hunting. And maybe learn a lesson? The movie can't decide, so first Bacon has a moment of clarity with his comatose son.
Then he resumes madman stylez.
First, Bacon has to get himself some guns, and he manages to find the mysterious John Goodman—who's also the crime boss of the gang that started this whole mess! "What the fuck?" you're asking yourself? But wait, there's more! Goodman is also the father of the guy who killed Bacon's son, and the father of the gang's leader! Guess what? He sells Bacon some guns anyway, and tells him that he's a good customer. In some bizarre nod to realism, Goodman includes manuals with the black-market guns he sells to Bacon, and there's actually a scene of Bacon flipping through them to learn how to kill some mofos. I'm assuming this scene was included because so much of the rest of the movie is so absolutely believable—like Bacon ducking shotgun blast after shotgun blast—that we'd be taken out of that magical movie place if he just automatically knew how to use a gun.
Finally, after 70 minutes, Death Sentence decides to fulfill its stupid destiny: There's a huge fight scene in which Bacon kicks ass, then has a little "moment" with that stupid gang leader. Some of the fight is great: Clearly James Wan could've just made a big, stupid movie filled with big, stupid action. But he tried to do something more—he tried to have his revenge cake and eat it, too. When Bacon finally arrives back home to watch some sweet home movies—with the tape outline of his dead wife between him and the TV set, which remains miraculously unbroken—it's just laughable. In the final nod to Lifetime, Tyler—who should probably instead be arresting Bacon on a multiple-aggravated-homicide charge—zooms up to his house and walks in to tell him that his comatose son has started moving. As if to say "Everything will be okay, even though you're covered with blood and watching home videos of your dead family."
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? Honestly, maybe 10 minutes out of about 110. (That's about 9 percent, if you're keeping score.) If you skipped forward to the flashy fight scenes, you might find something to like about Death Sentence, but it's probably not even worth that minimal effort.