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Saturday, May 14, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Death Warrant (1990)

One of my favorite things about cheesy action flicks from the eighties and early nineties is how the films would cross-pollinate with other genres, creating kooky mash-ups of different B-movie styles. The logic behind this is sound. Combining two cheaply produced types of movies can’t raise the budget that much while also allowing you to court two different audiences, expanding the film’s commercial appeal. “Death Warrant” sticks Jean-Claude Van Damme, doing his typical Van Damme thing, into a prison. He also fights a bad guy who wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher flick. Tossing together different genres has benefits and flaws.

Louis Burke is a French-Canadian police officer tracking a brutal serial killer known as the Sandman. After wounding and apprehending the bad guy, Burke gets a new assignment. A number of inmates at a local prison are ending up dead, mysteriously. Burke is sent undercover to investigate. Soon, he uncovers a conspiracy that extends to the prison guards and officials. The inmates are being killed and harvested for their organs. After Burke’s true identity is discovered, another match-up with the Sandman is set in motion.

Despite being a Van Damme movie that runs under ninety minutes, “Death Warrant” is surprisingly slow moving. There’s only two major action scenes in the first half. Instead, the script – the debut work from future superhero scribe David Goyer – actually focuses on the cops’ investigations. While inside the prison walls, Van Damme digs up clues and leads. He asks questions of other inmates. He sneaks around, discovering secret files and hidden laboratories. On the outside, Van Damme’s female partner/love interest teams up with a teenage computer expert to hack the computer’s system. These scenes are especially superfluous. The viewer figures out what’s happening in the prison as soon as a doctor makes note of the hero’s rare blood type. Mostly, the overdone plotting takes screen time away from the action we’re all here to see.

“Death Warrant” also has to play within the rules of the prison movie. Even before they’re revealed as organ thieves, the prison guards are abusive and sadistic. The inmates are divided along racial lines. The Latino prisoners wear bandanas and wield switchblades. Naturally, there’s a White Power gang. The black prisoners face slurs and discrimination from everyone, guards and inmates alike. Shanks and prison wine both feature prominently. Sequences are devoted to solitary confinement and the inevitable prison riot. Upon entering his jail cell, Burke’s bunk mate demands fellatio. Van Damme rebuffs his advances but, don’t worry, “Death Warrant” is still plenty gay. Burke bonds quickly and deeply with Hawkins, a fellow inmate played by "Benson" himself Robert Guillaume. The film ends with Burke carrying an injured Hawkins out of the jail, in his buff, sweaty arms. There’s also a bizarre brothel in the prison’s basement, where transvestite inmates are prostituted by a flamboyant pimp named Priest.

Like I said, “Death Warrant” doesn’t just toss together action movie and prison movie clich├ęs. Perhaps forecasting David Goyer’s future work in the horror genre, the film features some random macabre elements. The Sandman is played by the suicidally named Patrick Kilpatrick. The opening scene has Burke emptying his service revolver into the serial killer. Despite these seemingly fatal wounds, the madman returns to vex the hero. Kilpatrick has the stamina of Jason Voorhees, as he survives beatings, stabbings, a circular saw to the head, and even being set on fire. The Sandman is also fond of Freddy Krueger-worthy one-liners, asking people to bring him a dream. Kilpatrick’s performance is wide-eyed and demented. The film’s moody direction, dark tone, and frequent sneaking-around definitely gives it the feel of a thriller.

“Death Warrant” definitely has a slow start. In the first hour, Van Damme only gets in one fight. It’s an entertaining scuffle, which concludes with JCVD shoving Al Leong head first into a washing machine, but far too brief. Honestly, the movie gets a little tedious, as the characters stumble into plot reveals the audience has already guessed. However, in its final third, “Death Warrant” totally wins me over. The Sandman opens all the prison cells, releasing rampaging bands of crooks. Burke chases the villain into the industrial boiler room below the jail. Van Damme screams, takes a wrench to the face, tumbles over a railing, and takes his shirt off. Suddenly, “Death Warrant” is a bonkers action fest, with all the jump kicks and quick punches you’d hope for. The battle to the death between the hero and the villain is totally worth the wait, as the movie kicks into overdrive near the end.

“Death Warrant” was produced by Cannon Films, those legendary masters of eighties action cheese, under the title of “Dusted.” However, before the film could be released, the long floundering studio finally crashed and burned. Since the Muscle from Brussels was still a hot property at the time, “Dusted” was quickly picked up by MGM, given a slicker new title, and released at the dawn of the new decade. Maybe this protracted post-production is why “Death Warrant” is kind of overlooked in Van Damme’s filmography. It’s not the camp classic his earlier movies were but, if you’re patient, it delivers some giddy joy anyway. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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