Sort of a Brute Force for the digital age, Felon follows a familiar men-in-prison path: There’s the innocent convict thrown in with brutal gangbangers; prison guards who are, if anything, worse than the prisoners; a hands-off warden; and a picture-perfect family waiting for the hero to come home to a normal life.
In this case, family man Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) is sent to San Quentin because he accidentally kills a thief who broke into his home. The legal sticking point here is that Porter murdered the guy outside, as he was fleeing, which is technically manslaughter. So our protagonist is shipped to Corcoran State Prison, where Lt. William Jackson (Harold Perrineau) regularly stages gladiatorial-like fights among the prisoners. Luckily for Porter—sort of—he shares a cell with John Smith (Val Kilmer, unrecognizable and excellent), a notorious con who is feared by just about everyone, prisoners and guards alike. But Smith, recognizing that his “fish” (novice) cellmate needs some schooling in prison politics, soon bonds with him and gives him all sorts of inside-the-walls life lessons.
Problem is, Jackson has it in for Porter, because he thinks the new convict is the key to solving a murder. And the longer Porter is in the Special Housing Unit, where the baddest of the bad are incarcerated, the quicker he becomes as vicious as the men around him.
Filled with brutal men trying to cope with an evil environment, Felon doesn’t stint on violent encounters. But it also takes time to show how extreme conditions affect people on the outside. Porter’s girlfriend (Marisol Nichols) has to decide whether she wants to stick with him until he’s released, and has to deal with desperate economic conditions. Jackson, a single father of a young boy, comes off as a caring dad, but when a drunk driver puts his child in the hospital, he deals with his grief in a particularly nasty way. Even Smith, who’s in jail for life after murdering the entire extended family of the two punks who killed his wife and daughter, is afforded a degree of sympathy.
Based to a certain extent on events that actually happened in the California prison system, Felon has an old-fashioned B-movie vibe about it. Slickly directed by former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, with the excellent cast giving believable, lived-in performances, the film aims to be nothing more than a solid entertainment for genre fans. That it succeeds in what it sets out to do is nothing to sneeze at.