A hard-working, clean-living family man (Stephen Dorff) is sent to prison after he accidentally kills a burglar. Thrown into the violent world of life behind bars, with its indecipherable codes of behavior, racial disharmony and dehumanizing violence, he struggles to get by. That is until he is made cellmates with a philosopher/poet/mass-murderer (a girthy Val Kilmer) who shows him the ropes.
Writer and director Ric Roman Waugh, a former stuntman, did extensive research into prison culture for "Felon," and while his portrayal of prison life certainly feels like it has the pungent sting of accuracy, that does not by itself make for particularly compelling drama. The television show "Oz" covered a lot of this ground already -- that show featured "Lost" actor Harold Perrineau as an inmate, here he's a sadistic guard -- but with the broader canvas of serialized drama, "Oz" was able to present both a more detailed look at prison's codes and a finer sense of dramatic heft.
As a filmmaker, Waugh flails about, undone by the visual challenge of the bars and cells and confined spaces of the prison. His reliance on extreme close-ups neither opens up the space nor heightens the sense of being stuck in place; they just seem ill-framed and awkward.
And yet "Felon" is not a total bust. What does work is because of the strength of the actors. Dorff brings a visceral sense of desperation to his performance, though he does tend to go too big too quickly. Kilmer gives the film its center as an alien, still presence amid the chaos around him. Perrineau chews scenery with aplomb, and Sam Shepard has a couple of scenes to inject his folksy wisdom into the proceedings.
Waugh scrambles to add tension by creating a not particularly plausible scenario that sets people scrambling toward the prison for a last-minute stand to fast-track Dorff's character into getting released.
The story is then capped by a voice-over from Kilmer that somehow tries to refashion incarceration into some sort of journey of self-discovery, a subset of the culture of self-help.
For a film that seems to pride itself on its depiction of prison-reality, it feels extremely movie-phony.
"Felon." MPAA rating: R for brutal violence, pervasive language and brief nudity. Run time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At the Mann Chinese 6, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-8111; Krikorian Buena Park Metroplex 18, 8290 La Palma Ave., Buena Park, (714) 826-7469.