These final moments also help drive home something unique at the heart of the film. Unlike, say, a similarly vengeance-driven character like The Punisher – whose 2004 film I defended earlier this year – or any other movies where vigilante justice is justified and lauded, Death Sentence never once supports Nick’s decision to take the law into his hands. His act of hunting down and murdering Joe after the young gang member walks free isn’t treated as a moment of catharsis, but one that’s clearly a mistake. His actions have dire consequences that lead to his wife and surviving son being executed in front of him before he, too, is shot and left for dead.
And even once he’s found out that Luke also survived being shot, Nick chooses to continue down a terrible path, failing to appreciate that his son may pull through – and need his father once he has – until it’s too late. As he’s bleeding out on the couch, the cops arrive and he’s informed that Luke will be okay, but now his life is over – even if he survives the wound he’s sustained – thanks to his own actions, his throwing away of chance after chance to walk away going unrewarded by film’s end.
Even the title of the movie applies less to those Nick punishes directly (and indirectly) and more to the death sentence he inflicts upon himself. By film’s end, he’s become just as much or more of a monster than the people that killed his son – a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed even by Billy – the man becoming what he hates for no other reason than being angry. He’s never presented as an infallible protagonist/antihero, but instead as a man who fumbles to load bullets into the guns he buys, gets injured repeatedly, and only occasionally gets by on sheer luck, and even then, his luck runs out. And just like the senseless violence behind the gang initiation that led to his son’s death, his violence is never excused, and every drop of blood he spills or limb he blasts off is never glorified, every act he makes left up to the viewer to absolve or condemn by the film while it builds a substantial case for the latter.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, the general weakness of the supporting characters doesn’t help Death Sentence‘s dramatic side, deflating a bit of its impact, but what helps keep the film afloat is Wan’s handling of the action sequences. It’s not refined and flawless, but there’s a sense that Wan himself is finding his footing in shooting action, which pairs well with the idea that Nick is out of his element, too. His scuffle with and murder of Joe is handled well, the home invasion that ends with he and his family being shot is suitably tense, and the final shootout in the gang’s lair has a number of highlights, whether it’s Nick reacting to the shadow of a gang member in time or the no-win situation in the hospital’s chapel that ends in a surprisingly quiet moment between him and Billy.
Of course, the best sequence in the film is in the middle of it all, an extended sequence where Billy’s gang closes in on Nick on the street only to end up pursuing him through alleyways, a building, and into a parking structure. Wan and his team eke out a lot of suspense here, and there’s some creative camerawork on display as we seamlessly follow Nick from floor to floor as he sets off car alarms as a distraction only for the camera to move down a level to touch base with Billy’s gang, before once more rejoining Nick as he flees upwards to his own car. Even at the top, an altercation with one of the gang brings out the animal in Nick, resulting in a battle between the two in a car as it’s reversing towards the ledge, moments away from dropping several stories.
Especially in these action scenes, it feels like Wan is using Death Sentence as a training ground to push his own boundaries as a filmmaker, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Is the final result perfect? Absolutely not. But it’s something he needed to make to prove, especially at the time, that he could be capable of more than just staying in his comfort zone of horror. And aside from being aided by a great performance from Bacon, Death Sentence benefits from using its story and its violence to comment on something a bit deeper than usual, which gives the overall product just enough strength to keep it from being completely held down by its other faults. In essence, it’s a film where Wan’s growing pains are on display, but one that works in spite of that, entertaining both for what it gets right and for allowing us to be able to look back on it in retrospect – even just out of curiosity – to see Wan’s evolution as an artist unfold.