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Felon
(2008)

Director: Ric Roman Waugh   
Cast:
Val Kilmer, Stephen Dorff, Harold Perrineau


I once read an interesting story about an incident that happened in the childhood of yet-to-be-famous director Alfred Hitchcock. Seems that one day as a child in England he was acting up, just like all children do from time to time. Instead of giving him a typical punishment, his father decided to do something different. Alfred's father gave him a piece of paper with something written on it, and told Alfred to go to the local police station and give it to whoever was in charge. Alfred did just that. What was written on the piece of paper? It was a request by Alfred's father for the police to put Alfred in a jail cell and lock him up for several minutes, which is just what happened. Young Hitchcock certainly learned his lesson that day, to not disobey your parents, but he got something more out of that experience. Being locked up in a jail cell, even for just a few minutes, traumatized him for life. For the rest of his life, he had a fear of the police, and had the related fears of being accused of a crime he did not commit, as well as being imprisoned for something he did not do. These fears of his turned up as themes several times in his work as a director, including such films as Saboteur and North By Northwest.

I can understand how Hitchcock felt. I have to admit that I share those same fears as he did. No, my parents never had me locked in prison. I always had a good relationship with them. I showed them movies they found enjoyable, such as The Groove Tube, Monte Walsh, and Your Three Minutes Are Up; they introduced me to movies I also found enjoyable, such as Boondock Saints. But I have had a fear of the police, false accusation, and wrongful imprisonment for as long as I can remember. I'm not exactly sure why this is, but I have an idea that it might be for a number of different reasons. One thing I definitely find creepy about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is that it seems that all the male police officers, for some reason, have mustaches. I've watched plenty of old westerns where the villains wore mustaches, so this detail of the police makes me feel uneasy. Another thing I found suspicious is that the French translation of the R.C.M.P. translates the words "Royal", "Canadian", and "Police", but not "Mounted" for some reason - just what are the cops in my part of the country mounting that the cops in Quebec find unnecessary to do so? But seriously, I have observed plenty of real things over the years that makes me feel uneasy about the law. I have heard plenty of stories about corrupt cops, and cops that break the rules when confronting suspects. I've also heard plenty of stories about people who went to prison for crimes they did not commit. And I've heard many stories about how brutal prison life is.

Maybe I worry too much. I've managed to avoid the police and the rest of the justice system all of my life. I might not be doing anything that raises suspicion, but I can't speak for everyone. In fact, during the over ten years that this web site has been in operation, I've noticed several times that it has inspired people to do things that might be considered unlawful. There was one user of the Internet Movie Database that copied my review of Bridge Of Dragons and posted it as a user comment for that movie's entry on the web site (the comment has since been taken down.) There was one B movie review web site that copied my review of Blood Freak almost word for word. At the DVD Cult web site, two reviewers ripped off my reviews of The High Crusade and Point Blank. The Film Threat web site grabbed (without permission) my screen grabs of Hugo The Hippo when they reviewed the movie themselves. And a reader alerted me when one of the hosts of the Canadian cable channel Drive-In Classics used almost word for word my O. J. Simpson comments from my review of The Klansman. Seems that everyone is breaking the rules but me. But I'm still nervous about the police and prison. That's one reason why I recently rented Felon, as a way to confront my fears. The plot: Stephen Dorff (Alone In The Dark) plays Wade Porter, a man with a good life. He has his own business, and has a loving family at home. One night, he is awakened by a burglar in his house. Confronting the burglar, Wade kills him when he thinks the burglar is reaching for a weapon. When the police arrive, Wade is arrested for murder. At his trial, he is sentenced to serve three years in prison. And it's there that his problems really start.

Countless other movies before this one have depicted a bleak view of prison and the justice system, and Felon isn't a movie that breaks with that tradition. I wouldn't have thought that Wade would have been charged, given the circumstances were that Wade genuinely thought his life was threatened, but the movie takes the time to argue otherwise. (It still seems strange; maybe someone who has seen the movie and knows American law better than I do could write in and clear this up.) Things just go downhill for Wade from here. He can't afford the million dollar bail, standard for a murder case, and with limited funds he's saddled with a court-appointed attorney. He has to wait more than ninety days in county jail before his trial begins, a brutal place where you'll get jumped just for looking at someone the wrong way. Eventually he is forced to choose the lesser of two evils - plead guilty to manslaughter and get sentenced to three years, or risk going to a jury trial where the jury could find him guilty and get him saddled with a sentence that could stick him in prison for an even longer time.

The penitentiary that Wade is sent to is, unsurprisingly, an even worse experience than all the experiences he's had before this point. Even before the bus transporting him there arrives, he gets tangled up with an assault one prisoner inflicts on another. Once the movie reaches the penitentiary, writer and director Waugh (a former stuntman) pulls no punches in presenting a bleak view of it and everyone connected to it, directly or indirectly. The one thing I kept noticing about the penitentiary throughout, unlike other prison movies, was how cramped every part of it was. There's only one shot of the penitentiary from the open space of the outside; the rest of the movie crams the camera into impossibly small cells (where we're told the prisoners are confined in 23 hours a day) and the guards' observation posts. Even the exercise yard, spacious in other movies, is a confined space with walls so high that you have to look straight up to see anything but cement. Though I have never been to a penitentiary, I think it's safe to say that this feeling of confinement is probably closer to the truth than what's seen in other prison movies. You feel the confinement, as well as the stress of the prisoners and guards from this confinement. Another reason why the bleak events in this movie feel more real than your typical prison movie is Waugh's camera technique. Most of the shots of the movie are photographed by a camera that is hand-held. This cinéma vérité technique gave the events of the movie a more believable feel to them.

That is, most of the events of the movie. The courtroom sequence shot in this manner just felt sloppy, and the majority of the fight sequences in the movie are hard to follow due to the camera whipping side to side quickly. But Waugh's direction is solid for the most part. He even gets good performances out of the cast, whether they have small or big parts in the movie. Sam Shepard (Black Hawk Down) has little more than an extended cameo, but he gives a sympathetic performance that makes his character one of the movie's few rays of hope. Marisol Nichols (24) makes several appearances as Wade's devoted girlfriend, believably progressing from devoted mate to someone who can't take it anymore as the months progress. Harold Perrineau (Lost) plays a loving father who happens to be the most brutal guard at the penitentiary, and he's convincing as a man with these two opposing sides. Dorff has possibly the most difficult role of the movie, starting off as a devoted family man who is slowly changed into a hardened man who ultimately doesn't give a hoot about anything anymore. It's partially a difficult role, because the screenplay has some gaps in it for his character; for example, shortly after he arrives in county lockup, the movie suddenly jumps more than three months ahead, not telling or showing us what happened in this time that affected him. (There are more jumps like this once he is in the penitentiary.) Despite this, Dorff manages to change his character's attitude as the film progresses.

I think that most people who seek out to watch this movie will be doing so in order to watch the performance of another actor in the movie, that being the performance of superstar Val Kilmer, who in this movie plays a serial killer known simply as "John Smith". What's he like in Felon? Well, I must admit that the first thing I noticed about him was that he had a fat face. I first noticed this fat face earlier this year with his direct-to-DVD movie Conspiracy (which was a bad rip-off of Bad Day At Black Rock.) In this movie, Kilmer tries to hide his fat face here with facial hair, but you can still see the fat in his face. If you can get by the fat, you'll see that Kilmer makes his character stand out. He does not play Smith as a raging lunatic, but someone who has been numbed by years behind bars. He sounds weary; he's seen it all, and after seeing all that, he just wants to be left alone. Kilmer does well, but he occasionally has some dopey philosophical dialogue like, "What a piece of work is man", which doesn't sound right for his character. The screenplay has some other minor flaws to it. There's a short sequence where Perrineau's character's son has been injured by a drunk driver, and the confrontation between Perrineau's character and the drunk driver seems to just be there to show how mean Perrineau's character is, which we have already seen several times. Aside from flaws like I have described, Felon overall manages to be a very effective movie. I must admit I kind of hesitate from recommending it, however. It's so dark, so downbeat for most of its running time, that it can't be described as a "fun" experience. It certainly didn't make me, the one with the fears, feel any better. But I must admit I admire it for its overall craftsmanship, and for its determination to tell it like how it must really be like.

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See also: Bloodfist 3, Prison, Spoiler

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