Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 15, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: In Hell (2003)

The first time I had heard of “In Hell” – and, honestly, one of the last times I heard of “In Hell” – was a commercial for a television screening of the film on the USA Network. I didn't think it was odd, at the time, that a new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie would go straight-to-television. This says a lot about where Van Damme's career was in 2003. The once popular and successful Muscle from Brussels was strictly a B-list talent by that point. In 2017, I was actually kind of excited to finally watch “In Hell.” Jean-Claude and Ringo Lam's previous collaborations resulted in the surprisingly entertaining “Maximum Risk” and “Replicant.” Their third, and final, film together is a very different beast but still worth checking out.

Kyle LeBlanc is working overseas in Russia, living happily with his wife. While coming home from work, his wife is murdered by an intruder. After the man gets off on a technicality, LeBlanc shoots the murderer to death in the courtroom. Kyle is given a harsh sentence in a Russian prison. The conditions are hellish, rape and murder commonplace among the inmates. In particular, the wardens delight in forcing the prisoners to fight to the death. Kyle gives up hope at first but soon rediscovers the will to survive, participating in the fights. Even this solution is not as simple as it appears.

As he has done occasionally, “In Hell” seems designed to subvert your expectations for a Jean-Claude Van Damme hero. After discovering his wife's attacker, we get a pretty cool chase through the city streets, with some traditional kicking and diving. However, after Kyle arrives at a prison, the movie becomes a very different creature. Van Damme attempts to kill himself, first by hanging and then by bashing his head against the wall. Jean-Claude's hero spends most of the movie in a stupor, terminally depressed. When he regains the will to live, it's survival for its own sake, without love or compassion for other people. During the fight scenes, Van Damme deploys few of his trademark kicks. By the final act, LeBlanc has had a philosophical change of heart and refuses to fight. All of this is fairly at odds with the usual kind of Van Dammage we've come to expect.

Lam's previous team-ups with Van Damme were fairly serious affairs but distinguished by bursts of quirky humor. “In Hell” does have some eccentricities but is mostly a very grim film. The prison setting is made as gritty as possible. Van Damme's cellmate, a large black man, makes a habit of smothering other prisoners to death with his bare hands. Later, the same character sets a guy in a wheel chair on fire, with much attention paid to the burning man's agonized death. An early scene shows a guard selling an attractive new inmate to another man, who then brutally rapes him. The isolation chamber, where LeBlanc spends part of the film, is also where the prison's sewage system drains. So, yes, “In Hell” features its share of poo. Lam roughly follows the beats of the prison genre. The sadistic wardens and inevitable riots both appear. But this is a far rougher film than “Death Warrant.”

Befitting that darker tone, the fight scenes in “In Hell” are brutal and unforgiving. Van Damme gets his ass kicked several times, even being beaten with a shovel. After he grows a beard and starts training, LeBlanc becomes a vicious fighter. The punches result in bloodied faces. The throws produce shattered limbs. After getting his crotch slammed into a sign, LeBlanc bites a huge chunk out of a man's neck. The towering Micheal Bailey Smith appears as another prisoner, brought in specifically to fight Van Damme, who is even more brutal in dispatching his foes. “In Hell” is not a “fun” action film, the violence designed to be impactful and heavy.

Despite the commitment to realism, Ringo Lam can't help but sneak some odd touches into the film. Some of these work better than others. Van Damme's dead wife is represented by moths, one of which seemingly communicate with him throughout the film. Later, the moth turns into a ghost-like, fully interactive hallucination of his wife. Which is unexpected, at the very least. Contained within the prison is a giant, masked, deformed mongoloid who fights like a vicious animal. Van Damme ends up making friends with this killer. This stuff is quirky and likable. Other stylistic touches are distracting. Such as the techno music that plays during several fight scenes. Or the mostly unneeded voice-over, from Van Damme's cellmate, which feature heavy-handed ruminations on the nature of humankind.

I didn't like “In Hell” as much as “Maximum Risk” or “Replicant.” It's not meant to be enjoyed on that level, going for something more serious and thoughtful. You have to be in a particular mood to appreciate something this dour. However, it is an interesting film. Van Damme gives a good performance. The action is impressively brutal. Lam brings some unique touches to the story. The idea of a “Midnight Express”-style prison drama starring Jean-Claude Van Damme probably could have turned out much worst, at the very least. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 1 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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