y 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",
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
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
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.