Jean-Claude Van Damme has become the direct-to-video main-stay, and with In Hell, he embarks on a very un-Van-Damme foray. Devoid of the slick, stylish fights he's best known for, In Hell combines "realistic" fisticuffs with a stab at a legitimate plot (read: not just a fragile narrative holding fight set-pieces together). Does this balance work, or do we now label the former mega-action star the "Wuss-els from Brussels?"
Facts of the Case
Kyle LeBlanc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is one poor schmuck. His beautiful wife is killed, slain in their own home, the murderer gets off because he knows somebody, and then, for taking justice into his own hands and plugging the scumbag with more holes than a Matrix sequel, LeBlanc winds up with a life sentence in a corrupt Russian prison where the warden sets up inter-prisoner brawls for his amusement, delivers helpless inmates to predatory rapists, and basically walks around looking smug.
Inevitably, Leblanc finds himself ensconced in the brutal fights, and he slowly sinks into a rage-infused existence, where beating the snot out of hulking eastern Europeans becomes his drug to dull the pain of his wasted life.
This is not your typical Van Damme movie. Actually, I don't know what that statement is supposed to mean. For most people, I would hazard they consider this a good thing. But the problem I found was that director Ringo Lam (famed Hong Kong auteur, who filmed two other Van Damme movies, the snoozer Replicant and Maximum Risk with oft-underdressed Natasha Hentridge) strove to do too much, and in effect came up shallow on all counts. Think The Shawshank Redemption meets The Ultimate Fighting Championship minus the compelling facets of each.
Van Damme stuff can be counted on for sometimes-successful action escapism (Universal Soldier, Sudden Death—my personal favorite—and Bloodsport), cheap knock-offs of these modest successes (Kickboxer, Lionheart, The Quest), or straight-up cinematic dry heaves (Street Fighter and Double Team). In Hell is unlike any of these, trading highly stylized fight sequences for an increase in character pathos and plot configuration. Don't expect much martial artistry here; the fights are knock-down, drag-out, teeth-extracting grapple-fests, with nary a slow-motion-triple-take-airborne-kick-to-the-face to be seen. Lam has gone for realism, mixed with character development and plotting, only the result is an action narrative with unappealing action and a forced narrative.
Kyle's inmate friends are products from the Easy-Bake Oven of Cliché Sidekicks and Stereotypes (note the "wide-eyed kid" or the "wheelchair-bound guy who, if you need anything, can get it" or "the quiet fella who's been in the prison for years and has seen it all"). Plus there's the masked savant who brutalizes anyone that opposes the warden, which sets up a ludicrous, random moment of sentimental camaraderie between him and Kyle.
Basically, this is an ambitious little flick that starts promising, then gets swamped by plot contrivances, trying to do something new with a clichéd actor, but ends up a cliché itself.
Production values are high quality, and the picture and sound are respectable. Included is a featurette that mixes interview snippets with lots of movie footage. Not much to write home from your corrupt Russian prison cell about.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It should be noted that the unique End Bad-Guy's Death adds a few points to the film. Let's just say it involves a stationary Jeep and his knee-caps, earning it a score of 7 out of 10 DZs (Drop Zones, of course named after the Wesley Snipes movie that features the greatest End Bad-Guy Death of them all).
Van Damme fans may be split on this; it's a new type of endeavor for the now straight-to-video actor, and that may prove enticing, but don't expect any trademark Van Damme action. Others will be better off playing a round of Pit-Fighter for the Sega Genesis.
Right back to that Russian prison with you!
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