Friday, 6 May 2011

Defend A Bad Movie: Death Sentence


- Has to have a rating lower then 50% on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

- You have to like it. That's pretty much it.


Ratings: 36% Metacritic, 19% Rotten Tomatoes

Plot: A suburban dad ( Kevin Bacon) swears revenge on the gang that killed his son, and hi-jinks ensue.

Look nobody is going to say Death Sentence is the best film ever made, but it's an efficiently staged revenge thriller that while brain-numbingly stupid, is pretty bold in where it goes and Saw director James Wan puts together a mean action scene. Its not high art, and its politics are questionable to say the least but it's not fair to call a movie that succeeds in almost everything it tries to do failure, just because good taste and the notion of subtlety have no place in proceedings. I say they wouldn't have belonged anyway, and Wan's ridiculously over the top revenge thriller succeeds precisely because it doesn't stop to think where it's going. This is a movie with a terrible script, cliched dialogue and at best a functioning lizard brain. The best that could be done with it is to make it an entertaining piece of exploitation pulp. And I think it succeeded in that task, it's no Kill Bill, but it's a sort of interesting take on the revenge movie that delivers what you came for and is never boring, and there's so many movies like it you can't even say that for.

I think much of the critical hatred of Death Sentence comes from a place of being disgusted. Most reviews cite its grisly violence and sadistic point of view is the reason its to be found wanting. Is the film morally repugnant, well of course it is. Children get murdered for the sake of cheap pathos, and its entirely about doing what's wrong for the greater right, even if that right is just for you. But then so is every revenge movie ever made. The entire point of the genre is exploring someone who chooses to no longer do what we expect them to do. And if this movie sucks for that reason then so does Point Blank, Kill Bill and every other film ever with violence in it ever. A much fairer point of contention would how fucking dense it is. Because I think somewhere in here is an attempt to subvert the revenge movie, it just gets lost in the film's inability to say what it's trying to say. I think the idea was to show revenge as a vicious cycle, something that once started can never be stopped, because once you've had yours, they'll want theirs and you'll want yours again.

That's a good way to comment on the futility of the act, and the never ending pit it leads to. But the thing just doesn't have enough coherency to make that point. Instead, as revenge movies are wont to do, it gets caught up in the adrenaline, sacrificing introspection, coherency and eventually logic in its pursuit of a primal, dark and violent catharsis. So it abandons trying to comment on the genre about half way through, it abandons having Kevin Bacon's actions make any sense, or even have who the character is anymore. Bacon starts the movie a TV dad and ends it as Rambo, destroying many men all by himself with no training. He's an insurance salesman for fuck's sake. That's not to mention the pretty broad characterizations of both the villainous gang, and Bacon's super-perfect family. I think the phrase golden boy is used several times before Bacon's son bites the dust, and he's dead before we hit fifteen minutes. Garrett Hedlund's poser performance doesn't help any, never really convincing me he's a badass gangster and not a rich boy playing dress-up.

Why let it get away with all of this? Because I felt that it even though it abandoned all that other stuff, it put together sequences with enough intensity to justify it, Bacon's performance is good enough to justify it. And in its own brawn over brains type way it sold me that this was the best choice for the movie to make, because it sure as shit wouldn't have known what to do had it gone any other way. At least Wan knows how to stage an action scene, and like I said there's a couple of doozies in Death Sentence. An extended chase sequence in a multi-storey car park is just a terrific piece of technical film-making. I think from beginning to end it lasts about ten minutes, and it's pretty exhilarating stuff. And as for the final shootout, well yeah. You've seen it before. But what you've not seen before is Kevin Bacon shave his head except for a Mohican type thing and just be awesome killing people. And I think its the casting of Bacon that makes it more then sum of its parts, because there's some horrible dialogue here, one scene that Bacon has to deliver a monologue to his comatose son about family is pretty excruciating.

But Bacon commits to everything, from the syrupy family scenes to his batshit crazy scenes, that even if I was watching a clusterfuck, I was watching a clusterfuck with a great anchor.This isn't to mention the epically scene-stealing performance from John Goodman who must have five minutes of screen time and convincingly walks away with thing. He gets the best lines ( "Take that fucker to the holy land and start your own crusade") and has one scene where he sermons to Bacon about how if he has to kill Goodman's son, fine, just don't bother him about it. Goodman has probably never given a bad performance but he does a lot with a little here and creates a character that's a joy to watch in an otherwise humorless movie. To be honest a movie about that character would probably be a fuck ton more awesome. There's no getting away from Death Sentence's stupidity, but I think it's just fresh enough and well acted enough to be given a pass, and certainly not the passionate disdain it's reputation seems to be defined by.

My feeling is that a movie is always better if its smart, but at the same time its not impossible for a movie to work without smarts. If its exciting enough, or well executed enough or relentless enough then you can forgive an airhead every once in a while. And between the work of Goodman and Bacon, and Wan's technical assuredness, I feel that it delivers on what it promises, and is exactly the best it could be. That's still just an OK movie, but to ignore a film's strengths because it disgusts you is bad criticism, or rather a little unfair at least. An entertaining, dumb and disposable experience, but one of the better ones for its type of thing.

Rating: 6/10

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