Loosely based on horrific incidents that happened at Corcoran, Felon is a gritty and uncompromising prison movie. It feels more rough and intense than the stylish Shot Caller, also directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Here, the handheld camera and authentic setting create a very uncomfortable and powerful atmosphere. The story is a familiar one, an ordinary guy goes to prison and must learn quickly in order to survive. What awaits him inside is something that’s far away from our society. And while the prisoners are expectantly brutal, the guards are right behind them. And, in some cases, far ahead.
Felon is an indictment of the American prison system and it’s not the first nor the last movie to raise this issue. And I’m not talking just about what happened at California State Prison, Corcoran during the nineties. I’m talking about the whole concept of prison, the same as this movie did. It makes us empathize not just with our lead characters but pretty much every person in this fucking prison. They’re put into this harsh and unforgiving world and they must behave by its rules. I also liked how we go through all the different stages and technical procedures following Wade’s arrest.
You might even say that this is an educational movie, showing you just how nasty things can get. And what’s even more haunting is that the worst stuff here happened in real life. Wade’s journey reminded me of the probably most well-known prison movie based on real events, Midnight Express. I’m trying to write an extended analysis of just why this movie made such an impact at the time of its release. Getting back to this one, I have to say that if you’re expecting a lot of action, you will be disappointed. Felon is a slow-burner focused on characters with enough fights to give it an edge.
Now, those fights feel very authentic and this is because the stunt coordinator told the actors to improvise in between the major takedowns. This made them feel more realistic and frenetic, just like real prison fights. This also includes the fighting style with a lot of grappling and dirty punches. I’m sure some of you might even find them disturbing. I know I did in a couple of moments. And they came with a price as Stephen Dorff got two concussions during the production.
After several years of hard work Wade Porter has finally managed to expand his business. He has a kid with his girlfriend Laura and the two of them are planning to get married soon. However, one night is going to change all of that. They hear someone moving through the house and after Wade hits him with his baseball bat, the intruder dies. Now, he’s on his way to one of the toughest prisons in the country and that place is hell on Earth.
I think that this is probably Stephen Dorff’s best performance to date. He’s actually a very underrated actor and the same goes for our pretty boy Val Kilmer. Now aging but still robust and looking like a man you don’t want to fuck with, Val gave a very subdued and memorable performance. However, none of them, at least in my opinion, can come close to Harold Perrineau as the boss guard Jackson. I remember him from Lost but here was a force of nature here.
I would also like to mention Johnny Lewis who played Snowman and who ended up in prison just a couple of years later. After a horrific car crash in 2011 he was simply never the same, dying at the age of 28 after a series of bizarre incidents. At the time of his death he wasn’t high or drunk so the most likely cause was that head injury he suffered all the way back in 2011.
The thing that was missing from Felon was the sheer fucking boredom. Now, I know that’s not so exciting or thrilling to watch but there are ways around that. And it’s an integral part of prison life. However, this is just a minor complaint and not something that’s going to ruin your movie night. At the end of the movie, we get this statistic about how many people are currently in the American prison system. Same as we did in Against The Wall some fourteen years earlier.
And while there are some signs of progress today, the private prison complex is now expanding to migrant detention centers or Service Processing Centers (SPC). There are currently seven private migrant detention centers all under the supervision of ICE. Finally, if you’re looking for movies like Felon, I recommend you check out Brawl in Cell Block 99.
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Writer: Ric Roman Waugh
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Marisol Nichols, Val Kilmer, Harold Perrineau, Johnny Lewis, Sam Shepard
Fun Facts: The makeup department spent several hours each day applying Val Kilmer’s tattoos.