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Felon Print E-mail
Sunday, 14 September 2008
ImagePrison movies are a Hollywood staple, and have been since the early talkie era.  Over the years, they’ve gradually become more realistic, although that isn’t always a virtue; the reality of prison is that most of the time it’s extremely boring—one of the main elements of this form of punishment—which means that even the best prison movies, from the early 30s to the present, have to dip a toe into sheer melodrama.  “Felon” manages to stay realistic most of the time, but the style director Ric Roman Waugh has adopted is itself rather hammy—he heavily overuses intense closeups—and the climax involves that hoariest of cinema clichés (and this one dates back to, oh, say 1905), the Race Against Time.  This undercuts what had been until then an interesting, though not involving, prison drama focusing on what happens when a regular family guy, contractor Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) is sent to the slammer for five years.

The script, written by Waugh, sets things up very quickly: Wade’s business is going well and soon he’ll be able to marry his long-time lover Laura (Marisol Nichols), with whom he’s had a son, now about seven.  (The point that Wade and Laura are not actually married is emphasized several times, but it’s never clear why, or if, this is important to the plot.)  When a burglar breaks into their house, Wade chases him down—and accidentally kills him.  He’s sentenced to five years for involuntary manslaughter.

In jail, he’s promptly jumped by another prisoner, demonstrating clearly that life on the inside is very much not like life on the outside.  On the prison bus to San Quentin, a friendly fellow prisoner tries to recruit Wade into a white supremacist gang that’s very powerful at the prison.  Wade’s reluctant, but does end up suspected of being in the gang already when the leader knifes a guy on the bus and the knife is found under Wade’s seat.  Because of this, he’s sent to “The Shoe,” a section of San Quentin reserved for hardcase convicts. The guards at The Shoe are led by tough, brutal Lt. Jackson (Harold Perrineau), who casually takes bets from his fellow guards on the vicious fights that often break out in the exercise yard below the guard room.  But we also see that Jackson is a very caring father; there’s a touching scene with his young son early on.  This emphasizes the similarities between Jackson and Wade, but the differences are more important.

We’ve already seen John Smith (Val Kilmer), in prison for life; his only friend is Gordon Camrose (Sam Shepard), a former guard.  But he’s outside and Smith is inside.  (We never learn for sure what Camrose is doing now, other than occasionally visiting Smith in prison.)  But now Smith is sent to San Quentin and ends up Wade’s cellmate.  Smith doesn’t really give a damn any longer; he’s a big, strong guy, enabling him to stay apart from the various warring factions in prison.  Eventually, he gives Wade the lowdown.

Collins (Nate Parker), an ambitious but compassionate new guard, is befriended by top guard Jackson, partly because they’re both black, but mostly because Jackson likes having his team under his control.  Roberts (Nick Chinlund, memorable from “The X-Files”), another guard, is largely in Jackson’s corner too, but like Collins, begins to fear that Jackson has begun to go too far.  He sometimes hauls a prisoner in from the yard and personally beats the crap out of him, but usually prefers the powerful beanbag guns used to quell minor outbreaks of violence—those Jackson has not bet on, anyway.

Smith helps Wade establish a position at prison, but this attracts Jackson’s vengeful attention, and Wade ends up with years being added to his sentence.  When Laura makes her occasional visits, she realizes Wade is gradually becoming a different man, one she doesn’t like, but he’s incapable of clearly explaining to her what intense difficulties he faces.

The plot develops slowly, in fits and starts, and at times is a little hard to accept, as when the Shoe prisoners align themselves to protect one of their number from Jackson.  Wade comes to respect the intelligent, reserved but powerful Smith who, like almost all the other prisoners, has had his body covered in tattoos.  Only in Smith’s case, it’s a history of why he’s in the prison in the first place.  The various elements coalesce as the story reaches its climax.

The movie is marked throughout by date countdowns “Time served: 231 days,” pretentiously presented in type that almost too small to read.  The entire movie is intelligent but not as incisive as the makers seem to have thought.  Probably because life in prison has been much the same since there have been prisons, most of the material and characters are familiar from other prison movies.  “Felon” breaks no new ground.

But the ground it covers, though familiar, is still often compelling, even riveting at times, though there’s always an element of overstatement, there are always a few stereotypes.  Val Kilmer plays his restrained but powerful character very well—his is the best performance in the film, not unusual for Kilmer (reportedly hard to work with).  But this is a guy we’ve seen before; here he may be a bit more philosophical, a bit more brutal, a bit more intelligent than similar characters in other prison movies, but overall, he’s a familiar type.

Stephen Dorff is a competent actor who’s never landed that one big role that would put him over into authentic (if low-grade) stardom.  Part of his problem is that he’s not very distinctive—he’s a good-looking guy in his thirties, a pretty good actor, but Hollywood is thick with those.  Here, he makes Wade’s gradual evolution believable and interesting, though the story does not focus on this element as much as perhaps it should have. 

In the routine making-of featurette that accompanies the film (and which is the only extra), Waugh claims to have been emphasizing realism, but the intense, in-your-face style he uses as a director, the movie veers away from realism.  There are far too many intense closeups, some of them hand-held, giving the image a jittery, hard-to-watch quality.  Presumably the closeups were to give the audience a little of the claustrophobia that is such a part of prison life, but instead it tends to make a viewer impatient, hoping for an occasional wider shot that would give a better idea of the environment the characters face.

This is, of course, in high definition, but that matters little here, unless you’re someone who really gets off on the texture of concrete and loves sweaty human faces with rough beard stubble.  “Felon”’s story is basic and simple enough that it might actually have been more effective as a radio drama.  Even though he’s been a stunt man since the early 80s and has turned to direction only in the last few years, Waugh doesn’t seem to know how to film action to get the strongest impact.  Stage it, yes, he does that well—he puts the actors in the right places, knows how to make a staged fight look real, but his directorial choices are ordinary; we rarely have a shared sense of impact and pain.

The sole extra is “The Shark Tank,” a routinely competent “making-of” documentary shot on the set, which used a New Mexico prison as a filming location.  What’s said by the various talking heads is modestly interesting, but because it’s largely an advertisement, there’s no examination and certainly no criticism.  (And no Val Kilmer, though given his reputation that’s hardly surprising.)

“Felon”  is largely well made with some good performances, primarily Perrineau’s and Kilmer’s, but there isn’t anything really special about it.  Though it’s entertaining to watch, you’re not likely to remember it very long.

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