Death Sentence

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Directed by James Wan. Written by Ian Jeffers; based on the novel by Brian Garfield. Starring Kevin Bacon, Garrett Hedlund, Kelly Preston, Jordan Garrett, Aisha Tyler, John Goodman.

Kevin Bacon goes to the Nth degree in this gripping but empty exploitation throwback, delivering high octane thrills while running on fumes. The flick is all about blunt force trauma, offering an aggressive spin on a genre not known for subtlety — the always-fun seedy urban vigilante/revenge thriller. A thematic cousin to Neil Jordan’s altogether more thoughtful but similar The Brave One, Sentence is more on the crass side, though it shares DNA with the granddaddy of ’em all, Death Wish. Sentence is trash, but trash made with passion and skill, if not a surplus of smarts, before it goes terminally stupid in the third act.

Bacon gets to chew all sorts of scenery as devoted family man Nick Hume, a buttoned-down actuary who views life as an exercise in risk management, until his teenage son is senselessly murdered by thugs during a gas station hold up. It turns out that the killing was part of a gang initiation ritual, an act too chaotic for the calculated Nick to wrap his mind around, so he refuses to testify against the creep that did it, opting for a much riskier solution of messy street justice.

Soon the nerdy corporate drone is born again as a bad ass; each act of violence sees him diving deeper into a hopeless death spiral with a crew of thugs who aren’t about to cut their losses and leave well enough alone.

Sentence occasionally flirts with respectability, half heartedly ruminating on the endless cycle of violence and attempting to spread a moral over the quiet spots, though never long enough to affect flow of carnage. It doesn’t help that the moral center is held by Aisha Tyler; as a knockout lady cop, she’s a fine comedian, but as a dramatic actress she’s only slightly more credible here than she is in this week’s other stinker Balls of Fury. Then there’s the John Goodman’s thoroughly insane performance as the slimy father of the gang’s leader, a bellowing creep upset that his boy’s blood might spill over and contaminate his own criminal operation. With over-the-top villainy, Goodman seems to be visiting from another, funnier picture and his scenes are a jarring — if not welcome — counterpoint to a relentlessly grim enterprise.

Director James Wan brings the same gruesome inventiveness he gave Saw, relishing in close-ups of limbs shot-gunned off and lingering on slow-motion blood splatters as if they were beautiful sunsets. To his credit, Wan keeps the pulse beating fast enough that we’ve little time to consider how crazy and unbelievable it all is, from the silly tribal tattoos and leather look of the punks — the old Madison Avenue gang idea — to the Travis Bickle coif Bacon gives himself before the climactic bloodbath.

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