My expectations coming into Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest straight-to-video opus, “In Hell” (aka “The Savage”), was not very high. They were, in fact, so low that anything other than crap would have satisfied me. Imagine my surprise — I thoroughly enjoyed “In Hell”! Not only has star Van Damme learned to act, but the film even plays on the conventions usually found in the “typical Jean-Claude Van Damme movie”. What an intriguing approach, I have to admit.
Van Damme stars as Kyle, an American working in Russia whose wife is raped and murdered in their home. The rapist is captured, but the Russian judicial system fails to prosecute. Filled with rage, Kyle murders the rapist in the courthouse and as a result is sentenced to life in prison. Now a man without a reason to live, Kyle ends up in a prison that is two sins short of renaming itself “Hell on Earth”. It’s a disgusting place, evil to its very core, and the men who run the place mind as well have “sadistic for the sake of sadism” tattooed on their foreheads. The prison’s corrupt warden has a side career where he stages bloody fights between the inmates and bets on it with his buddies. A good time is had by all — except for the prisoners, that is.
If the prison setting of “In Hell” sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been done to death. In fact, Van Damme was in an earlier movie called “Death Warrant” where he went undercover in a prison run by sadistic prison guards and a corrupt warden of the caliber found here. And about 2,000 other movies around the world have done similar films, minus the whole tournament fighting angle. Tournament fighting, if you don’t know, is what made Van Damme famous in the first place. First with “Bloodsport”, then “Kickboxer”, and about a dozen other films where Van Damme is a competitor in some sort of illegal/sometimes legal (but more often than not illegal) underground fighting scheme.
And probably because Tournament Fighting movies are so recognized with Van Damme’s career, this may be why the fighting in “In Hell” is such a drastic departure. The fights in “In Hell” are a series of brutal and wild fisticuffs rather than the usual stylized martial arts. Van Damme’s Kyle not only loses fights, but he gets the tar beaten out of him on a regular basis. A big, big plus for “In Hell” is director Ringo Lam (“Looking for Mr. Perfect”), who last directed Van Damme in “Replicant”, and before that, “Maximum Risk”. Back in his native Hong Kong, Lam had directed the gritty prison movie “Prison on Fire” and its sequel, “Prison on Fire 2”, both starring Chow Yun Fat. So it wasn’t a surprise that the film’s gritty look was thanks to Lam, and not one of the hack directors that have been directing Van Damme of late.
“In Hell” is a brutal film, realistic enough to be disgusting at times and gritty enough to make you feel uneasy while watching it. But of course that doesn’t always prevent the film from trying too hard to seem like another Tournament Fighting movie starring Van Damme. But here’s the thing: when it comes time for the script to inject one of those Unbeatable Opponents that appears in all of Van Damme’s Tournament Fighting movies, the script and Lam pulls a fast one, and turns the whole thing into something rather minor. Yes, that’s right. No fight-to-end-all-fights here. It’s a couple of minutes of wild punches and then it’s over!
The film’s Third Act, in fact, feels like too many ideas jammed into too short a running time. At something around 90 minutes, “In Hell” could have used an extra 30 minutes to get all of its points across. I was intrigued enough by all the ideas getting thrown my way that I wanted more. There’s a lot happening in the Third Act, many of them based on solid notions. Unfortunately the film feels heavily cut at the expense of story clarity and some interesting subplots involving rebellion in the prison. As a result the movie offers up a number of faux endings, all of which could have been the perfect ending to the move if followed through.
I can’t say enough about the performance of Van Damme, who really seems to have developed a decent acting game. Unlike fellow Former Viable Action Star Steven Seagal (“Out for a Kill”), the Muscles From Brussels show more range in this one movie than he ever did in his entire career up to this point. Believe me when I say that I am not a Van Damme fan. In fact, I usually dread watching his movies. With recent dreck such as “The Order” and “Derailed”, the blame goes to Van Damme for picking such poor projects and not his audience for losing faith in him.
Of course “In Hell” isn’t perfect. The villains are too stock and cartoonish, reeking of established prison movie conventions rather than creativity. Neither the head prison guard nor the warden, who seems to be missing for most of the movie, makes much of an impact. Of note is former NFL tackler Lawrence Taylor, who has a major role as a sage homicidal maniac who refuses to play the prison’s games. And oh yeah, while giving Kyle advice on how to keep one’s soul intact, Taylor’s character goes around burning people to death. The character just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, unfortunately.
Despite all the handicaps mentioned above, “In Hell” might just be the best movie Van Damme has ever done. And who’s to say he can’t do even better? I certainly won’t bet against him.
Ringo Lam (director) / Steve Latshaw, Eric James Virgets, Les Weldon (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Bailey Smith …. Valia
Jean-Claude Van Damme …. Kyle
Marnie Alton …. Grey
Lawrence Taylor …. 451
Chris Moir …. Billy