Skilled cinematographers have all sorts of tricks to affect the way movies look - they can create hyper-real, color-saturated images that look more intense than life or they can bleach out the brighter hues so that a movie looks almost as bleak as the city of Buffalo.
The movie “Death Sentence” may be the first film ever made in which the cinematography seems to parallel the dramatic trajectory of the movie. In other words, the more blood that’s shed, the more the color of the film seems to vanish, as if we’re watching the movie itself slowly bleed out.
“Death Sentence” owes its existence to the same source material that inspired the 1974 movie “Death Wish,” which starred Charles Bronson as the world’s most lethal white-collar worker. Both are adaptations of novels by Brian Garfield, who wrote the original “Death Wish” and followed that with the sequel “Death Sentence.” The subsequent Bronson “Death Wish” films ignored Garfield’s sequel and charted their own course to cinematic glory, which in this case meant ending up as filler material on Cinemax. These later films, which look like unusually violent episodes of “The A-Team,” turned the Bronson character into a bored-looking, nearly invincible “Terminator” with a bad moustache.
To its credit, “Death Sentence” starts in a place that somewhat resembles reality. Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is a suburban dad with a loving wife and two teenage sons. He’s no pumped-up action hero, just an ordinary guy who eventually morphs into a no-nonsense killing machine. Clearly a skilled professional, Bacon provides the movie’s only source of credibility by making Nick seem as frightened as he is obsessed.
The movie starts off on a reasonably sure foot, quickly introducing us to Nick and his family and establishing the suburban normality that’s about to get wiped away. Here the movie is in good health - its color is brighter because the bleeding hasn’t started.
One night Nick and older son Brendan are driving home from a hockey game when dad stops in a bad part of town for gas. Innocent Brendan goes into the store and is slashed to death when a gang bursts in and robs the place. The young guy who wielded the murder weapon is left behind by his fellow gangbangers, and Nick gets a good look at his face before the kid runs away and gets knocked down by a car.
Nick IDs the guy and figures the killer will spend years, if not the rest of his life, behind bars. He’s horrified when he discovers that the case is so weak that the killer will only get three to five years at best. Nick impulsively changes his story, allowing the guy to go free so Nick can pick up where the justice system failed. Nick finds, corners and stabs the guy. The gang learns Nick was the killer, and a bloody game of tit-for-tat ensues.
As the violence escalates, a police detective named Wallis (Aisha Tyler) occasionally appears at the most inappropriate times to scold Nick because she suspects his new hobby is revenge. After one devastating event, Det. Wallis shows up at Nick’s hospital bed so she can berate him as soon as he wakes up, thus blurring the line between moral bastion and total jerk.
The incident that landed Nick in the hospital also drives him over the edge, and as the movie’s color begins to drain it also gets a little loopy. Nick sneaks past his police guard at the hospital and walks home - in the rain - clad only in a gown and bandages. He shaves his head a la “Taxi Driver” and decides to buy some guns. More blood is shed. The tacky electric guitar on the soundtrack tells us that the movie’s shedding of blood is making it a bit stupid. By the time Nick faces his attackers for a final showdown the movie is almost in black and white (except for vivid red blood) and the guitar music is wailing in the background. Now virtually colorless, the movie goes as lame-brained as anything starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Death is imminent.
Minutes later the movie has expired, and the audience can be glad for any “Do not resuscitate” orders. “Death Sentence” can rest in peace, or at least somewhere out of sight, except for one problem: the afterlife, otherwise known as Cinemax.
Rated R for graphic, bloody violence and making “Death Wish” seem like a classic.
1 star - Lousy.
The rating system:
1 star: Lousy
2 stars: Horrible
3 stars: Painful
4 stars: Traumatic
The Movie Masochist is an emotionally wounded cinephile who lives in the United States. He watches bad movies so you don’t have to. Discuss movies, argue with or simply flatter him at jfranklin AT mcclatchy dot com.