Sunday, July 7, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Death Warrant (1990)

A series of mysterious murders hits a US prison, and the authorities in form of a higher up of the Department of Corrections and a governor soon up for re-election do the logical thing to solve the problem: they import tough guy Quebecois Mountie Louis Burke (Jean-Claude Van Damme in the phase where he added smiling to looking grim, or bored, or doing a shouty face to his thespian catalogue) to go undercover in the prison and find out what's going on. It's all very secret, of course, so only the officials and the governor's assistant - and full-grown lawyer - Amanda Beckett (Cynthia Gibb) know of Louis's true identity. Consequently, Amanda will work as a go-between between the outside and Louis, playing the role of his wife.

Once in prison, Burke first establishes himself as a guy tough enough it's better to ignore him, repeatedly overstepping the bounds of the place's racially segregationist policies during his investigation and making friends with an older African-American prisoner named Hawkins (Robert Guillaume) as well as "the Priest" (Abdul Salaam El Razzac), the leader and pimp of the prison's population of African-American gays, transsexuals and cross-dressers.

Burke quickly learns that the murders take place not just with knowledge of at least the prison's chief warden, Sergeant DeGraf (Art LaFleur), but Amanda and he are also able to puzzle out that there must be somebody quite influential on the outside at least lending protection to the operation. My, whoever could this be?

Things become more dangerous for Burke when an old enemy of his, a serial killer calling himself the Sandman (Patrick Kilpatrick), is brought to the prison, and blows his cover.

At its core, Deran Serafian's Death Warrant is your typical "cop undercover in prison" movie with added scenes of Jean-Claude Van Damme kicking people in the face, and while that's not really the most original thing for a film to be, Serafian's competent direction and David S. Goyer's well-paced (first) script do turn the material into something that's quite entertaining for two thirds of its running time, and seriously silly and awesome for the final third when any ideas of probability are thrown out the window and replaced by the sort of sheer action movie cheese you expect from most Van Damme movies.

There are quite a few excellent moments in the film's final act, like the one where our hero does his patented muscle-pump/shouty-face combination only to get a wrench thrown at his face for the effort, or - clearly one of the greatest moments in cinema history - the one where JCVD kicks the Sandman into a furnace, only to have the burning man jump back out again and continue the fight after a minute or so of our hero looking pretty smug. These moments, as well as some really rather great pyrotechnical special effects, make up for the fact that the action choreography is mostly a bit boring, with Van Damme doing the same kick - and not even THAT KICK - again and again and again, which doesn't come as a surprise in an action movie/mystery combo that doesn't even have a stunt or action choreographer listed in the credits.

Death Warrant - and we are entering mild spoiler territory here, so be warned, whiny people - gets additional bonus points for giving its female character actually something useful (though not spectacular) to do apart from being cute and therefore JCVD's love interest, for not including a scene where she needs to be rescued by our hero, and for featuring an African-American actually guilty of his charge who is still sympathetic, as well as an African-American transsexual, and an African-American of vague yet non-straight sexuality as our hero's allies among the prison population. The film's even letting one out of three black characters live at the end, which may not sound like much, but really is an improvement about the way things generally go in films like these.

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