A remake-in-spirit of Death Wish (1974), the urban-vigilante touchstone that made Charles Bronson an icon and got reloaded for four more shots through 1994, the ridiculous misfire Death Sentence will leave both genre and general audiences pleading cruel and unusual punishment. Unremittingly stupid, with characters and even a setting that bear no relation to the recognizable world, this attempt by James Wan, the director and co-writer of Saw, to move from torture-porn fantasy to psychological crime thriller shows only that when it comes to brains, he's got Sawdust.
Based on the Death Wish sequel that novelist Brian Garfield wrote to make amends, he said, for the way the movie glorified his vigilante antihero, the script by first-time feature screenwriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers jettisons most of the book and replaces the original character (Paul Benjamin in the novels, Paul Kersey in the movie) with a new construct—bland investment-company executive Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon), a family man with two teenage boys (Jordan Garrett and Stuart Lafferty) whose forced and stilted dialogue comes from the Hollywood Squabbling Brothers template. Nick's married to Helen (Kelly Preston) who…well, who's nothing, since the movie doesn't give her any hobbies, interests, background life or speck of personality beyond generic Spouse Around the House.
When Hume and his older son stop at a wrong-side-of-the-tracks gas station one night, the kid's killed in a gang-initiation rite. This dovetails with our first hint that the movie's already gone off the deep end—a multi-culti, skinhead/black-power gang driving Death Proof cars and making The Warriors look like a Ken Burns documentary. Then, despite the murder's banner-headlines profile and Hume's prominent status and eyewitness account, the callous prosecutor (Yorgo Constantine) tells Hume to cut a deal or else. Hume agrees, but then at a hearing purposefully cuts the killer loose—and, later, purposefully cuts the killer dead. The next day the stupidest police detective since Frank Drebin visits Hume to break the news. Hume, despite his cut and bandaged hand, couldn't possibly be a suspect or have a motive, of course, since the movie has many more miles of stupid yet to go.
We won't give a list of the perplexing plot points or ridiculous "gang" talk, other than to wonder how the police in this unnamed town can call the killing a gang initiation, and then don't go after the murder-accomplice gang-members—who have a meth lab in an abandoned mental hospital, by the way, where all the cars parked outside don't draw anyone's attention. Neither does the shootout in the city's downtown. And when the gang-bangers threaten Hume and his family, does Hume get his wife and remaining son into hiding while the cops track down the locale of the phone number the gang-leader gave him? Um, no.
Bacon hyperventilates and looks shocked for much of the film, until suddenly becoming Jason Bourne. Is Hume in the Marine Reserves? Who knows! John Goodman, at least, is entertaining in his three scenes as a good ol' boy caricature of an illegal gun dealer. The grim ’n’ gritty cinematography is adept, though the soundtrack is off-the-wall inappropriate when it's not being grandiose. Director Wan may display some flash amid his blatant Taxi Driver swipes, but, Saw aside, he doesn't have the tools for tension or suspense.
The worm-has-turned revenge conceit can work—witness Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Don't witness this. And if you do, recant.