This updated version of Death Wish is violent, vicious and often very effective, due in large part to Kevin Bacon's enormously empathetic portrayal of a man driven to horrific extremes by the wrongs done him.
All-American family man Nick Hume (Bacon) is transformed into a man of violence and retribution when gang members murder his oldest son (Stuart Lafferty). Rather than allow the law to take its course, Nick takes matters into his own hands and exacts revenge upon the punk (an unrecognizable Matt O'Leary). This serves only to instigate an escalating war between Nick and the other gang members, led by the sadistic Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund)--a war in which the casualties are many and nothing is regained. The film is adapted, very loosely, from Brian Garfield's novel of the same name--which was a sequel to Garfield's earlier best-seller, which became the basis for the aforementioned Death Wish some 33 years ago. Like the original Death Wish, this is pure audience manipulation--and a great deal of it works. There are a few lapses in credibility: The police (of course) are never around when you need them, and they appear hardly concerned when two of their own are butchered.
Not surprisingly, Bacon's approach to the role differs from that of Charles Bronson's in the Death Wish films. The character expects to find satisfaction in vengeance, but it only serves to further endanger his surviving family members and wither his soul. He's an Everyman who's gone too far, and now there's no looking back. His quest for revenge effectively destroys his humanity. Kelly Preston, Jordan Garrett and Lafferty give warm performances as the ill-fated Hume family, making the tragedies that befall them that much more affecting. Hedlund is suitably loathsome as the principal heavy, while a never-grubbier John Goodman shows up in an extended cameo (three scenes) as a crime broker who won't let family ties get in the way of making money. Aisha Tyler plays the cop on the case whose repeated warnings to Nick go unheeded. If they had been, there wouldn't be much of a movie!
James Wan, who made a name for himself with the Saw films, brings his stylized approach to the consistent mayhem found in Death Sentence. Particularly effective is an intense chase sequence in which Nick is pursued on foot by the gang. The action is sometimes exhilarating to watch, as screen violence can (and should) be, but it's not taken lightly. When people are shot or stabbed, it hurts. Unlike the myriad Death Wish sequels and knock-offs, the point is emphasized here that violence begets violence and that vigilante justice causes as many, if not more, problems than it solves. This message, however, does not detract from the visceral thrills that the film provides throughout. There's also an underlying sadness to the proceedings. In the end, no good--and a lot of suffering--will come of the characters' actions. Death Sentence is fundamentally a piece of entertainment, and a well-made one at that, but the underlying message is there.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.