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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Dead End: Death Sentence (DVD)

Vigilante movies are as formulaic as movies get. That’s what gives them their power: they’re more like rituals than narratives. The audience is dragged through a series of emotional checkpoints and the film succeeds or fails not through innovation, but on how well it delivers what we’ve come to see.

The rules were laid down by 1974’s Death Wish: an average citizen has a family member or members bashed, mugged or killed by criminals. They swear half-thought-out revenge and start killing, tentatively at first then with increasing skill. The police – who were useless when it came time to prosecute the original criminals – soon get on the case, and the criminals start to fight back too.

Most of the variations on this formula, especially in recent years, have been minor ones. In The Brave One, the vigilante is female (Jodie Foster); in Harry Brown the vigilante is an old age pensioner (Michael Caine); in Paparazzi, the vigilante is a movie star hunting down life-threatening celebrity photographers (it’s actually better than it sounds).

So with the rules so firmly in place, why does Australian director James Wan (the original Saw) make Death Sentence – which in every other respect ticks the boxes as efficiently as any of the previous films - spend well over half its running time dwelling on what is the most obvious and least interesting part of the story: the hero’s decision to fight back? The entire point of the vigilante movie is to give the audience the satisfaction that comes from seeing scum get theirs: seeing the hero stand around for over an hour going “gee, I don’t know…” is missing the point by a wide margin.

Things start off in the traditional fashion, with roughly ten (seemingly endless) minutes of Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) having fun with his loving, perfect family before he and his eldest son first encounter the gang of street scum; suffice to say, things don’t go well for the son.

When the resulting case goes to court, Hume’s faced with the grim facts of the justice system in vigilante movies: the man who killed his son (senselessly – despite looking like a robbery, it was in fact a gang initiation, bringing the vital element of senselessness into his death) is going to get off easy even if Hume’s testimony puts him away. What does Hume do? He says the killer didn’t do it so he’ll be put back on the streets where Hume can take care of him himself.

While this makes almost zero real-world sense (Hume is a pencil-pusher who within the space of five minutes decides to tackle a member of a violent gang on his own?), it’s perfectly logical within the vigilante movie genre – how else are we going to see some scum cleaned up off the streets?

Hume tracks down his son’s killer to his apartment block, confronts him, and after a clumsy scuffle where the killer pulls a knife, accidentally kills him. In a traditional vigilante film –Harry Brown, The Brave One, Paparazzi, all the way back to Death Wish – our hero gets the hang of killing quickly, and the film moves onto questions of who they’re going to kill and will the police catch up with them.

In Death Sentence though, Hume now becomes the hunted, as the gang decide to take revenge on their friend’s killer. They track Hume down, confront him, shoot wildly at him while he flees into a parking garage where he (again, accidentally) manages to kill a couple more of them. Throughout he’s on the back foot. He’s unleashed something he can’t control, is constantly looking for a way to make it all stop, and, as the police repeatedly and unhelpfully tell him, what comes next is his own fault.

In a better or more original film highlighting Hume’s fear as his scheme backfires might work. But in every other respect – thin characterisation of the family, generic street scum lacking all redeeming features, a laughably offhand view of the courts, action movie-style violence - Death Sentence is nothing more (or less) than a traditional vigilante movie. While Hume’s fear in the face of the gang’s retaliation is “realistic”, vigilante films work on an emotional level rather than a realistic one, as shown by his snap decision to deal with his son’s killer himself. Dragging out this stage of the story doesn’t feel like a natural outcome of the plot, or a post-modern attempt to tweak the genre; it’s just dull.

What comes next is (finally) what we came here to see: the gang break into his home and shoot everyone at point-blank range. Still, as seen in the earlier confrontation, they really are The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight: Hume lives, as does his younger son (in a coma), leaving his wife the only one dead. Hume, finally realising what has to be done (and what kind of film he’s in), breaks out of hospital, buys a sackful of guns (ironically enough, from the crime gang’s Kingpin-style overlord [and father of its leader], played by John Goodman), and tracks down the bad guys to their lair in a disused mental hospital (of course).

It’s the traditional guns-a-blazin’ ending to a vigilante story, in the same way that the opening ‘happy family” scenes made for a traditional opening. So why waste so much time wavering on the question of “does violence solve anything” when we all know that here it not only solves everything, but is the sole reason for watching the film?

At first it seemed like the answer might lie in the source material. According to the credits, Death Sentence is based on “a novel by Brian Garfield” (it’s important to be specific, for reasons that will become clear). Garfield wrote Death Sentence back in the 70s as a sequel to his novel Death Wish, which the film was based on. Garfield has said publicly that the film – which had been a huge commercial hit, had a massive cultural impact in the US and went on to spawn four sequels – had glorified the idea of vigilante justice against his original intentions. He had intended Death Wish to be a cautionary tale: when everyone believes in “an eye for an eye”, eventually everyone ends up blind.

Cast in that light – and knowing that in a parallel world Hume was Kersey – the wavering that makes up two thirds of this film almost makes sense: a man who’s put his violent past behind him is forced to wonder whether the cycle of violence can ever really be broken. If Charles Bronson was able to reprise his most famous role, this could have been his version of Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s reflection on his western roles. After all, both revolve around a former killer dragged out of retirement to confront and re-assess his / the actor’s past.

[That said, Unforgiven has the advantage of an interesting setting, well thought-out supporting characters and a considered stance on violence; even if Bronson had somehow starred in Death Sentence as a direct reflection on his most iconic role, this film still has a one-dimensional supporting cast, generic settings, and pretty much nothing to say about violence past “shotguns are cool”.]

If this wider context had been available to Death Sentence, its drawn-out middle section would have had at least some point as far as raising questions about the usefulness of vigilante justice (before answering them the same way all vigilante films do: in a hail of gunfire cheered on by the audience). But in the film Hume has no violent past to reflect on, no history as a killer to add depth and context to his actions and concerns.

[And then, after I’d already written most of this review, I actually found a copy of Garfield’s Death Sentence novel in a secondhand store. If the movie’s based on a Garfield novel, it sure ain’t this one: the lead has no family and does not get in an eye-for-an-eye tussle with a street gang, but does have to deal with a rival vigilante, political grandstanding, social ramifications and… basically Death Wish 3 is a more faithful adaptation of Death Sentence than Wan’s film. They've taken the name and made up their own story to fit.]

So there's not even the lingering trace of a deeper meaning left over from the source material. This just simply takes forever to get to the point. Even if it seriously intended to say that vigilante violence was bad, Wan clearly loves violence (and in the unrated edition, gore) so much he can’t help himself. There’s no serious attempt here to tackle the idea that killing is bad rather than bad-ass: when all the violence is thrillingly shot with loads of bodies flying and blood spraying, the bland stretches where Hume refuses to man up and kill do nothing more than make him an annoying pain refusing to give us what we’ve come to see.

The result is notable solely as a failed experiment. There may very well be ways to tweak the vigilante formula to make it more crowd-pleasing or efficient; even Death Wish didn’t get it right first time (Kersey never kills the scum who killed his wife and raped his daughter; in pretty much every vigilante film since, the hero is solely out for personal revenge - though in my mind that makes them less interesting by far).

There may even be ways to make a vigilante film that seriously questions the nature of violence (presumably the “vigilante” would then have to be revealed for who he really is: a serial killer). But as a genre piece and as a piece of art, Death Sentence is nothing more than a dead end.

Anthony Morris

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