"I must say that its refreshing to speak well of a Jean Claude Van Damme film for once."
In Hell (2003)
AKA: The Savage, The Shu
Director: Ringo Lam
Writer: Steve Latshaw, Eric James Virgets, Les Weldon
Producer: Boaz Davidson
Cast: Michael Bailey Smith, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Marnie Alton, Velizar Binev, Assen Blatechki, Milos Milicevic
Running Time: 96 min.
Plot: For killing his wife's lover, Kyle LeBlanc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) has landed himself in Eastern Europe's most brutal prison, where the warden pits inmates against each other in to-the-death fights for his own profit. There, he must continue his winning streak, realizing that he is close to becoming the sort of unforgiving, violent monster that he despises.
REEFER'S REVIEW: Holding a copy of Ringo Lam/Jean-claude Van Damme's straight to video In Hell in my hand at the video store, I had the same thought that most action movie fans had who wasted money, time, and brain cells on their previous collaborations. Why has Ringo Lam subjected himself, his career, and his fans to mindless tripe starring the JCVD?
My presumptions, then, proceeded to melt away after the first five minutes of this fascinating attempt at transforming the "Muscles from Brussels" into an honest-to-god actor. Nowhere in this film is the flex'n pecks attitude of Van Damme's early career or the heavy-handed dopeyness of his more recent outings. With his tragic demeanor and bad haircut, this is a very different guy.
The film opens with Kyle (Van Damme) having a conversation with his wife on his way home. Suddenly he hears her scream and realizes that she is under attack by an intruder. In a brilliantly intense action sequence, we see him speeding home while his wife fights for her life. Kyle discovers his wife fatally stabbed, but the killer still lurks within the house. So the fight is on. Here is where the viewer first understands that this will be a different experience for Kickboxer or Bloodsport. There are no slow motion scissor kicks or fancy movements. Just brutal, grounded, desperate action.
And that desperation never stops. This is a very bleak film, showing the brutality of a world without justice. Kyle is eventually sent to prison for exacting revenge in the name of his wife. A horrible place. A place where fights are set up by prison officials for fun and profit. A place where young men are ushered to an empty room in order to be raped by the "champion" as some kind of sick reward. Ringo Lam's rendering of prison life is an unflinching and humorless exercise in barbarism and self hate. And Van Damme's acting as Kyle really deserves some recognition because he doesn't play him flashy or as some kind of vibrant martyr of justice. Kyle closes himself off. You can't get into his head. Van Damme conveys this and all of the character's feelings with only about 5 minutes of dialogue in the whole film. Don't get me wrong. He is not deserving of an Oscar nod or anything, but this is a considerable step for a guy who routinely attempted character development by taking off his shirt.
Its unfortunate that In Hell offers us such a half-hearted Shawshank-type ending. It tries to be inspiring, but comes off like the filmmakers really didn't know where to go with it. One of the film's strangest missteps includes a supporting role by none other than former pro football linebacker Laurence Taylor as a advice spouting Green Mile-type mountain of muscle who defies the prison officials by refusing to fight. I think he was meant to be a source of inspiration for Kyle but his motives are murky at best.
I must say that its refreshing to speak well of a Jean Claude Van Damme film for once. Sorta vindicates me for all the times I thought I would give him another shot but ultimately paid for it by witnessing films like Double Team or The Order or Desert Heat etc. I hope this is an example of Van Damme wisely submitting to the vision of a director and sacrificing for the sake of art instead of a man hanging by a thread professionally and personally. Who knows? This very well could be the beginning of something great.
REEFER'S RATING: 7/10