Movies in Brief: ‘Felon’

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Jailhouse dramas inevitably invite comparisons to Tom Fontana’s groundbreaking HBO prison soap opera “Oz.” Problem is, that television show has set the bar so high that few ever manage to withstand the comparison. Boasting a solid cast that includes Stephen Dorff, Val Kilmer, and Sam Shepard, writer-director Ric Roman Waugh’s “Felon” would have been noteworthy had we not seen it all before.

Mr. Dorff plays Wade Porter, who chases a fleeing unarmed home invader, beats him to death, and then accepts a plea bargain at the urging of his attorney in exchange for a light sentence conditioned on good behavior. Unfortunately, the cutthroat behind-bars gang wars force him to choose sides along racial lines. To earn protection from skinheads, Wade must compromise his principles, which threatens to prolong his incarceration and jeopardize his impending reunion with his fiancée and young son. Thankfully, Wade’s hard-bitten cell mate, John Smith (Mr. Kilmer), has a softer side and takes Wade under his wing.

Harold Perrineau, who served as the voice-of-reason narrator on “Oz,” here plays the vindictive, sadistic prison guard Lieutenant Jackson. Which suggests that stuntman-turned-filmmaker Mr. Waugh isn’t shying away from comparisons with the HBO series. But while Mr. Fontana infused that show with plenty of moral complexity, Mr. Waugh is only interested in the wrong man getting even. Wade declares in the film’s epilogue that, for his family, he would kill all over again. This kind of reductive conclusion leaves a bad aftertaste.

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