Small business owner Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) lives a modest life with his fiancée Laura (Marisol Nichols) and their three-year-old son. Everything changes in an instant, though, when he’s convicted of killing a man who breaks into his home. Sentenced to state prison, Wade ends up in a hellish facility overseen by a guard (Harold Perrineau) who encourages gladiatorial fights among the inmates. Though wanting to neither “fight or fornicate” (the two delightful options given by one inmate, in slightly saltier terms), Wade eventually yields to the former activity, in a paradoxical attempt to protect himself. When trouble mounts, his new cell-mate, John Smith, (Val Kilmer), a burly, goateed “lifer” with his own dark devastation, provides important guidance, all while ruminatively stroking his own tattoos.
Shot on location in New Mexico State Penitentiary, in hand-held, super-confessional close-up, and on color-saturated Super16 blown up to 35mm, Felon doesn’t have much of revelatory value to say about the nature of violence — indeed, its closing narration seems to endorse whatever-you-gotta-do means. The flimsy, cardboard-thin set-up is meant to only get Wade into prison (he cops to a murder charge since the fleeing culprit was technically no longer on his property?), and the setting is meant to only serve as an excuse for heavily tatted muscle-heads to use gang slang, prison acronyms and flip each other around in gritty, bare-knuckle fashion. See how that works? Still, in this regard, writer-director Ric Roman Waugh’s heavy background in stuntwork certainly pays off, as Felon, with its many boxers-and-sneakers brawls, rivals Eastern Promises in padding-free fisticuffs.
The chief problem is that, despite invested performances by Dorff and Kilmer, and after going to significant lengths to both establish a sense of claustrophobic realism and depict Wade as being punished by an unjust system, for not wanting to stoop to its calibrated levels of further dehumanization, Waugh chucks all this for a contrived, mad-dash finale that requires his protagonist bash in the brains of an “innocent” (a relative term here, I realize) guy to get the proper attention of higher-ups, and secure his release. Part cop-out, part simply bizarre, seemingly concessional flourish, it’s a weird ending for a film that otherwise decently captures the grimness of prison life, and how it corrodes even those ostensibly in charge. One hopes, at least, the stuntmen were well compensated. To view the film’s trailer, click here. (Stage 6 Films, R, 104 minutes)