You have to spill a lot of blood to earn the title “Maestro of Torture-Porn.” Director James Wan (“Saw”) has made his name in the sub-genre of films that focuses on graphic depictions of violence and gore. But in the wake of “Saw,” Wan’s “Death Sentence” seems to aim for a higher level of respectability by introducing more complex notions of family and responsibility. But make no mistake — Wan has simply exchanged the razor wire for more family-friendly firearms. In an awkward, preposterous coupling of family values and ultra-violence, “Death Sentence” is still emphatically about, well, death.
The story has all been told before. Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, the upstanding corporate VP and family man who loves teaching his two sons how to ride their bikes. He’s a man with values too: “Smoking is bad, speeding is bad, divorce is bad … It’s just kind of nice to see that all that junk is still true,” he says, over the mahogany desk in his corporate office. All of which is a bit strange, considering that he later ends up going on a blood rampage, slaughtering the entirety of a drug gang in an act of vengeance for his dead son who … oh, did I spoil the ending?
OK, so the plot is rickety at best, preposterous at worst. Wan’s resurrection of the family-man-turned-vigilante wouldn’t be so bad if his use of the old Hollywood genre were simply an excuse for a characteristically gory shoot-em-up.
The problem, though, is not that family values are treated artificially for the sake of getting on to the good stuff, but rather that Wan includes them so sincerely. The movie itself seems segmented into different genres: At first, the film could be a sentimental family drama, pulling all the right strings as Hume’s oldest son, Brendan, prepares to go to college and follow his dream of playing hockey. But when Hume and Brendan stop at a gas station on their way to the airport, a gang stops them and kills Brendan (the moment is poignantly illustrated in a slow-motion shot of the boy’s slushie hitting the floor).
But at this point, the movie does not merely become all bullets and vengeance. Instead, the murder of Hume’s son introduces an entirely new set of family values. It turns out that the murder was not simply a robbery; it was an initiation ceremony in which a young gang member, spurred on by his father, becomes a man.
Thus, the movie introduces multiple layers of drama. Although Hume is attempting to protect his own kin, the gang too is portrayed as a kind of family. There are complicated ways of framing the conflict between Hume and the gang: It is not merely a tale of revenge and murder, but a struggle between different understandings of family and fatherhood. Well, maybe.
“Death Sentence” may have confusing elements of family drama, but don’t expect the script to develop the complexity of a soap opera just yet. It’s at precisely this point that the film remembers what is apparently its main goal: unrestrained displays of violence. Hume goes berserk and, by the end of the film, Hume’s wife is dead, the gang is eradicated and the audience is entirely incredulous.
Ultimately, it’s unclear what all of the fuss over old-fashioned values was about when the plot simply degrades into long action shots of extreme vigilante justice. In an attempt to elevate his status as a serious filmmaker, Wan seems to have ostracized both the moral among us as well as the bloodlust crowd that made him famous.
Perhaps Wan should just go back to straight, honest torture-porn. At least it’s less painful for his audience.