Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is a family man and successful executive at his insurance firm, deeply proud of his sons, especially Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) who is shaping up to be a championship hockey player. They are driving home from a match one night when Brendan tells his father he is thinking of moving to Canada to pursue the sport professionally, but in just one moment all their dreams are shattered when Nick notices two cars travelling past without headlights, so he flashes his own to alert them. When he stops for gas further up the street, the cars pull up too, and Nick's life becomes a nightmare...
When Death Sentence was released it was dismissed as a Death Wish update, and on the level of the trashy sequels rather than the better thought of original. Part of the reason for this was inescapable: the screenplay, by Ian Jeffers, was based loosely on the novel that was written by Brian Garfield as a follow up to his Death Wish book, so naturally comparisons would be drawn, but many could not see past the bursts of bloody violence that punctuate this film. However, while there were certainly excesses to contend with there was a far more ambiguous treatment of the material than a dunderheaded endorsement of vigilante "justice".
What happens at that gas station is that Brendan is killed by the gang who were in those two cars as an initiation ceremony, and when you start your film on an urban myth (flashing headlights at gang members' cars means you end up dead according to one venerable tale) it's understandable that people could think you are on shaky ground. It seems to get worse from there, as when Nick goes to the trial, him being the only witness, they cannot get the killer put away for life and he will only serve a mere handful of years if convicted. Yes, we're back in the eighties when action movies proved that actual justice cannot be served by the courts, who are too wrapped up in red tape.
As you might expect, grief-stricken Nick decides to take the law into his own hands and tracks the gang to their neighbourhood, then creeps up on the member who killed Brendan and after a struggle he stabs him to death. However, Nick is no Charles Bronson, not until the last twenty minutes anyway, and he is horrified at what he has done, leading to the traditional crying in the shower scene. He does not then take to the streets to wipe the scum from the face of the city, as director James Wan prefers to show how violence does nothing but breed more violence, which may be what most of the audience want to see, but this is more thoughtful than most gave it credit for.
So the thugs, led by skinhead Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund), show up at Nick's place of work and chase him, ending up at a multi-storey car park where a tense cat and mouse scenario plays out, with Nick killing another bad guy more through luck than skill. And so a tragic tit for tat erupts, with Nick paying far too high a price for his getting even, as the gang members do in return. There are ridiculous scenes, for example when Nick walks home from the hospital after being shot in the chest the previous night, but this fits with the exploitation model Wan both emulates and challenges, and by the finale you get the impression that Nick has suffered far more, and let that suffering get to him far more than Bronson ever did, leaving him not a triumphant avenger but a debased shell of a man who has lost too much. Yes, there's action here, but also a tone that does not endorse the motives, meaning for most it fell awkwardly between two stools. Music by Charlie Clouser.