Death Sentence

It seems to me that Labor Day weekend here in the states was always kind of a big deal, movie-wise, like any three-day weekend. But somehow, this year, we didn’t exactly get a good crop. There was the remake of Halloween (yeah, right, like I was going to go see that) and that terrible Balls of Fury debacle that makes me wonder what’s happened to poor Christopher Walken’s career. He’s turned into some kind of parody of himself.

Oh, yeah, and then there was Death Sentence. It was almost totally un-hyped for some reason, in spite of starring Kevin Bacon, so I hardly knew it existed until suddenly it was at the theatre. It also stars Kelly Preston (Jerry Maguire, various Scientology meetings) as Kevin Bacon’s wife, Garrett Hedlund (Friday Night Lights -- the movie, not the TV series) as bad guy Billy Darley, and John Goodman as an even badder guy who goes by the name of Bones (not to be confused with the Fox TV series).

Basically, Kevin Bacon and his lovely wife have two teenage boys, the elder of whom is a hockey prodigy, just ready to head to college and start his life. The younger one paints or something. The older son is killed, messily, as part of a gang initiation. Apparently they’re like the Mafia in that you have to kill someone before you’re “made”. The film also seems to revive an urban legend I heard long ago, which says that gang members drive around at night with their headlights off on purpose, and once another driver blinks his or her high beams in the universal signal for “Your lights are off, stupid,” they must follow that car and kill the driver. They kill the passenger this time, but close enough.

The one who actually did the deed is caught pretty quickly, buy they have only Kevin Bacon’s testimony and not much else in the way of evidence. The prosecutor thinks they can get a plea bargain and a three to five year sentence. Kevin Bacon decides that the law sucks, and recants his testimony so the kid can be released and Kevin Bacon can hunt him down and kill him instead. I get that he’s not supposed to be thinking rationally at this point, but yikes. Personally, I would’ve gotten the kid the jail time. As the prosecutor very rightly points out, a lot of these kids don’t survive three to five years in the big prisons.

But this is a movie, so Kevin Bacon does hunt him down, and off we go, spiraling down into a Greek tragedy, where every death provokes a revenge killing, and another, and another, until Zeus himself has to show up and tell everyone to knock it off. Okay, that doesn’t happen here, but they could’ve really used some divine intervention.

At first, when Kevin Bacon’s just an ordinary guy trying to deal with his grief and guilt over what he’s doing, the movie’s still pretty interesting. He’s a normal person caught up in a violent world that he doesn’t quite understand, and things get out of his control too quickly for him to back off even if he’d wanted to. Then he slowly tries to turn into the Punisher or something, and it just gets… well, boring.

Actually, maybe the problem is that the movie tries to turn into Pulp Fiction. I expected blood, obviously, but they do things with a pump shotgun that just made me ill. I think it was the pump shotgun -- there were so many kinds of guns around I lost track. But there are body parts flying, blood spattering everywhere, and a lot of uses of the F-word in various forms. I don’t know if they got anywhere near Pulp Fiction’s very impressive record (265 times, according to imdb.com), but they gave it a good try.

But at least with Pulp Fiction, appalling as it often was, you still got the sense the actors were having fun with it -- they were really into their roles, and that showed on the screen. That little extra spark just isn’t here, though I’m kind of thinking that’s what they were going for. John Goodman, who helps add a great deal to the swear-word total, is also the only one who seems to be enjoying his over the top acting. The character is a horrible, fat, unshaven, unclean criminal who doesn’t seem to have a shred of conscience, but his scenes were the only ones where the audience reacted (except for the scene where a guy gets his leg blown off, but that was a different sort of reaction). He’s basically nothing but dry and deadpan and sarcastic, and he’s really good at it.

I was going to go with two idols, but for John Goodman’s sake, I’ll add an extra quarter idol. The gang members seem like caricatures of gang members (I’m not much up on gang culture, obviously, but somehow I don’t think there are a lot of them running around with “Carpe Diem” tattooed on their throats) and they’re all pretty much interchangeable as far as character development. Billy, the leader, gets more of a personality, but even that’s not much, though he does get a good scene at the end. At least, what I could hear of it sounded good. The same middle-aged couple who drove me crazy talking all through The Good Shepherd were back, and unfortunately sitting even closer to me this time. Anyway, don’t risk having to put up with noisy audience members, or even the film stopping twice, which happened to me -- if you want the violence and the blood, just go rent the original Pulp Fiction. Accept no imitations.

Originally posted 9/2007. Sometimes I get to like a movie a little more with the passage of time -- some nostalgia thing -- but that hasn't worked here.

Image: 
Kevin Bacon tries to look as tough as Jodie Foster in The Brave One.

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