By day, mild-mannered Nick Hume squints at actuarial data in his job as a risk-analysis executive. By night, he's a tender father and husband who's devoted to his wife, Helen, and their two sons, Brendan and Luke. The eldest, Brendan, is the apple of Dad's eye, a high school hockey star pondering a professional future.
But tragedy wrests that future from the Humes' hands the night Brendan is murdered at a gas station after a hockey game. His assailants: a gang initiating its youngest member, Joe Darley. The young murderer escapes, but not before Nick removes his ski mask and gets a good look at him.
Despite the positive ID, a lawyer informs Nick the best he can do in a plea bargain is 3-5 years for Joe. So instead of offering testimony that would put the criminal away for at least a little while, Nick lies on the witness stand ... so he can go after Joe himself.
Nick has little idea of the tempest he's about to unleash the night he plunges a knife into Joe's chest.
Joe's older brother, Billy, is the alpha dog in a pack of case-hardened street thugs prowling inner-city streets and dealing drugs. Like ravenous wolves, Billy and his gang set upon Nick and his family in an escalating war of retribution. They're met by a man equally—and recklessly—driven by his own insatiable hunger for vengeance
Nick and Helen love their two boys dearly. Nick could hardly be more proud of Brendan's skills on the ice. And their grief at the boy's death is a heartrending display of the depth of their love. Later, when Luke lies in a coma, Nick apologizes profusely for any favoritism he'd shown toward the older brother.
A policewoman named Wallis repeatedly tells Nick that nothing good will come of any attempt to administer "justice" on his own. She says, "Everybody thinks they're right in a war. ... Everyone dies."
After killing Joe, Nick expresses deep remorse. Eventually, it's implied that he confesses to his wife. She's horrified but tries to help him deal with his guilt; he admits his actions weren't the right response (though that ultimately doesn't stop him from going further).
More semi-thoughtless expressions than prayerful petitions or reverent references: After killing Joe, Nick cries, "Oh God, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Detective Wallis tells Nick that if he's incited a war with gang members, "God help you." A lawyer says he's going to "put the fear of God" into Joe; the same lawyer says he doesn't care whether the young man is murdered in prison or "finds Jesus" there. Brendan says of his hockey prowess, "God gave me skills."
Billy and his gang members' headquarters is an abandoned church. One scene in the church's dilapidated sanctuary finds Billy staring for a couple of seconds at a cross in front of a bright stained-glass window.
As a reward for killing Brendan, Billy gives Joe a wad of cash and tells him, "Have a nice time with [a prostitute]." Helen is seen in a clingy slip. And one of the gangbangers grabs at her chest while wrestling her down a flight of stairs. (It's unclear whether this is intentional sexual contact or merely rough incidental contact as he manhandles the struggling woman.) We see Nick's bare chest as he showers.
No news flash here: Death Sentence is full of ... death, most of it dished ultra-graphically. Joe knocks over the first violent domino in the chain by slashing Brendan's stomach and chest with a machete (after the gang shoots the convenience-store clerk). Then the boneyard starts to fill up faster after Nick seeks out and stabs Joe to death.
Nick goes mano a mano with one of Billy's thugs in a parking garage, repeatedly ramming the guy's head on the concrete and slamming it with a car door. He also entangles the goon in the car's seatbelt just as the rolling vehicle plunges off the multi-story garage.
Next up? All-out mayhem. Two policemen guarding the Humes have their throats slit. Nick finds Billy and his gang, and the gun battles that follow leave one man without fingers, another with a leg blown off at the knee, a third blasted out a window and one more minus his head. (In the last case, we see Nick lift the pistol to the man's head and briefly see the bloody results, but not the bullet's actual impact.) Other thugs take shotgun rounds in the chest.
Battles throughout the film include fierce fisticuffs as Nick and various assailants slam one another. Nick also takes a baseball bat to at least one character. A person is hit by a car, and Nick takes out another by ramming the van he's in with his car. Nick and an attacker tumble through a railing and down a flight of stairs.
All of this leaves Nick covered with assorted cuts, bruises and blood.
[Spoiler Warning] Before Nick's final rampage, he, his wife and his remaining son are all shot and left for dead. Helen dies, while Luke ends up in a coma. Similarly, Billy's horrible relationship with his father, Bones Darley, ends when the son shooting and killing the father.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters spit out about 100 f-words. (A dozen or so are paired with "mother.") The s-word is used about 10 times. God's and Jesus' names are taken in vain 15 times. (God's is linked with "d--n.") Twice, characters label someone a "faggot," and Brendan meanly calls his little brother a "no-d--k." (And that's not the only time vulgar slang evoking sexual anatomy is used.)
Drug and Alcohol Content
Billy and his gang manufacture some kind of drug, probably methamphetamine, and sell it. We never see anyone taking drugs or the actual production of them, but Billy brings money back to his dad in one scene and takes money from a customer in another.
Several gang members, especially Billy, smoke. After Joe's death, he's toasted with beer. Billy pours beer on the floor and throws a shot glass across the bar. Revelers at a New Year's Eve party drink champagne. Nick and Helen appear to have alcohol at home one evening.
Other Negative Elements
Nick illegally purchases his guns from Bones, a drug and gun dealer who harbors nothing but contempt for his son. While selling Nick the weapons, Bones quips, "Any one of these is bound to make you feel better about what's bothering you." Bones offers a perverse blessing of sorts, saying, "Go with God and a bag full of guns," knowing that Nick is off to do battle with Billy. The next scene intercuts footage of Nick loading the guns with images of him shaving his head and rebandaging his wounds. (This scene goes to some lengths to make wielding weapons look cool and empowering.)
Nick comes morally unglued over the course of the story. He refuses to testify against Joe, lies (initially) to his wife and son and is so determined to continue his vengeful rampage that he sneaks out a hospital window. A painful scene finds him yelling and swearing at Luke to get in the car when the boy goes to the place where Brendan was killed; Nick even pushes him hard enough for Luke to fall to the ground.
Brendan's wrestling and teasing of his younger brother has a mean-spirited edge. After Joe kills Brendan, Billy tells his brother, "I'm proud of you. You're a man now."
Let's cut to the chase right out of the gate: Whatever else Death Sentence may be about, its most obvious purpose is setting up the forgone conclusion of Nick Hume exacting grisly, cold-blooded retribution against those who've hurt his family.
This movie was directed by James Wan, the same man who helmed Saw. Suffice it to say, then, that he's no stranger to geysers of blood erupting from victims—and there's no shortage of those scenes here. The last 30 minutes finds Nick roaming the gang's drug lair methodically blowing important body parts off various offenders. And the profanity spewed in the process—especially the 100 or so f-words—is as unremitting as the blood spray.
[Spoiler Warning] The film's conclusion perhaps suggests that we should crane our necks to look past the buckets of blood, though, for a "deeper" message about the futility of revenge. In the climactic battle, Nick and Billy trade gun blasts, each wounding the other. Both exhaust their ammo and sit down together, bleeding, on the lone pew in the decaying church sanctuary. Billy looks at Nick—a battered, leather-clad vigilante with a jagged scar on his shaven head—and says, "Look at you: You look like one of us. Look at what I made you." The implication? That Nick's passion for vengeance has turned him into the very thing he sought to eradicate. Nick's chilling response—validating his rival's claim—is to pull out a .357 and ask Billy, "You ready?"
There's no catharsis for Nick here. Just tragedy. As the credits stalk the final scene, half his family is dead and he's either on the verge of bleeding to death or a life sentence. Clearly, insisting on revenge has actually prevented Nick from protecting the people he loves—and from being the good father he so longed to be.
The Bible warns against seeking revenge, saying, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath" (Romans 12:19). But I hardly think the Apostle Paul would have wanted this spiritual principle to be (ultimately) so poorly illustrated by a story thrust neck-deep in a river of violence and vulgarity that first serves bloodlust and only second serves the truth.