Saturday, August 10, 2019

"Death Warrant" - It's Like "Shawshank" with Roundhouse Kicks.

*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

Getting off to a late start this month, but still, a new month means another Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. This month I went with a childhood favorite that I think flies under the radar among Van Damme movies: Death Warrant. Part of the problem is the title. Of all JCVD’s movies, this one most likely gets the response, “Was that a Van Damme or a Steven Seagal movie?” It’s not because of the content; it’s because Seagal was in more movies with “Death” in the title. Anyway, most people will remember this one because of the prison/serial killer element. I remember finding the bad guy in this movie to be a bit scary when I was younger (part of the reason why I probably should not have been allowed to watch it at a young age, but oh well). Watching it again, it’s not all that scary, but my God is it dark. It’s a movie about a serial killer and organ harvesting set in a corrupt prison. Fun! The prison aspect stuck out the most to me. First, it’s one of those movies that makes prison seem so utterly ridiculous. I have no firsthand knowledge of prisons, but I hope even the corrupt ones are not run like the prison in Death Warrant (one example, a prisoner named Priest has been given control of an entire section of the prison where “even the guards” won’t go). Second, I couldn’t help but notice all the similarities to another prison movie…

The Shawshank Redemption...with roundhouse kicks or The Jean-Claudeshank ReVanDamption.

It’s easy to compare any prison movie to The Shawshank Redemption, but there really are a lot of similarities between the two films. And remember, this movie came out first! (The short story Shawshank is based on was published in 1982, but still.) Before I get into the similarities I want to point out that I know a lot of these are prison movie cliches that show up all the time. This is very tongue-in-cheek, and I just like comparing a Van Damme movie to a movie widely considered be one of the best films of all time. 

First, the main character in both films isn’t supposed to be in prison. With Shawshank, it’s because Tim Robbins is innocent. In Death Warrant, it’s because Van Damme is a cop who’s in prison undercover. The funny thing is that they both end up uncovering corruption within the prison, and they both end up in the hole for their troubles. With Robbins, it’s a form of revenge against the warden and guards. With Van Damme, it’s his job. So that makes Robbins a more interesting character, but he’s severely lacking in the able-to-roundhouse-kick-someone-in-the-face department. 

Which brings me to the next similarity: corruption in prison. This is probably the most common element of all prison movies. In Shawshank, the corruption is about falsifying accounts and taking bribes for prison labor. Things are a bit more sinister in Death Warrant, as prisoners are being killed so their organs can be sold for profit. It’s all about money, though. And, in the end, the people in charge are taken down. In Shawshank, it’s with letters. In Death Warrant, it’s with kicks to the head.

The prisoners in Shawshank are presented in a much milder manner than the psychos in Death Warrant, but there is still one major similarity. Van Damme meets Hawkins as soon as he gets to the prison and realizes he’s a man who can get things for you. Ring a bell? Also, both Hawkins and Red are played by older black actors. But aside from that, most of the prisoners in Death Warrant are horrible scumbags.

Another common element of prison movies is rape. In Shawshank, Tim Robbins is threatened with sexual abuse many times before he gets on the warden’s good side. He fights off his attackers at times, but other times he loses. In Death Warrant, Van Damme’s cell mate immediately tries to get him to suck his dick, but Van Damme puts a stop to that immediately. 

Both films also feature a brutal head guard who gets what’s coming to him in the end. Clancy Brown is great in Shawshank, but Art LeFleur in Death Warrant actually comes across as more imposing. I can’t believe I wrote that, especially since Clancy Brown was the Kurgan in Highlander, but I have to be honest.

You have to admit that there are a lot more similarities between these two movies than you would assume. That written, I could spend just as much time writing about the differences between the two films (like the whole serial killer subplot...but the real killer in Shawshank is kind of a serial killer, and he even kind of looks like the Sandman...never mind, I have to stop). It is fun to compare the two movies, though. And I’m not saying Frank Darabont copied this film, but I am saying it’s a possibility. 

They should have just picked organ harvesting or serial killer, not both. Add that to the ever-growing list of sentences I can’t believe I typed.

Death Warrant truly feels like two separate movies that coincide at the end. The Sandman stuff dominates the first few minutes and the last twenty minutes. The hour in between that is all about the organ harvesting going on in the prison. Both plots are fine and equally dark, but I ended up wanting more out of both. 

For the Sandman stuff, I would have liked a bit more backstory. Why is he called that, for instance. All I noticed was that he was wearing pajamas at the beginning. Aside from constantly referring to himself as the Sandman we don’t really get any more info about it. And why did Van Damme follow him to L.A.? Was the Sandman in Canada first? And then he goes to L.A. to keep killing? If he’s originally from Canada, then why do the L.A. prisoners love this guy so much? He shows up at that prison and is instantly given the freedom to do whatever he wants, and almost all of the prisoners gleefully become his lackeys. Why? Who the fuck is this guy? This doesn’t ruin the movie for me, but it does feel like a missed opportunity because this character left an impression on me as a child, and as an adult I want to know more about him.

The way the movie abandons the Sandman plot after the first few minutes made little sense to me, as well. It made me wonder why Van Damme took the case at all. My memory of the film was that he infiltrated the prison to finally finish off the Sandman, but the Sandman was only transferred to the prison later on to stop Van Damme. Why does a Canadian police officer feel the need to get involved with this case? 

The guys at the beginning of the film say they picked Van Damme because of his work getting the Sandman and because he’s unrecognizable to the prisoners, being from Canada and all. First off, what about taking down the Sandman makes him the ideal man for an undercover prison assignment? I guess they explain it’s because it seems like there’s a serial killer in the prison, but it still seems like too different of a case to warrant bringing him in from Canada. As for the unrecognizable part, they don’t have a rookie cop or a federal agent from another city they can use? Is it even legal to bring in a foreign police officer to work for L.A. County? 

I’m breaking one of my own rules here by questioning the basis of the plot. If any of these issues I raised were brought up then the movie wouldn’t exist. I just think there is a solution to this. So Van Damme is brought in because these prisoners (and the assistant warden) were killed the same way, making it seem like a serial killer is at work in the prison. Why not make that serial killer the Sandman? All they would have to do is establish that the Sandman killed his victims the same way the people in the prison were killed. Then, to get Van Damme to take the case, they can tell him that the Sandman is in that prison, but it being kept in isolation. So Van Damme needs to find out if the Sandman is somehow killing these people or if people are doing his bidding in the prison. Since the Sandman is in isolation, no one will be able to ID Van Damme as a cop. And you can still have Sandman released into general population later in the film to blow Van Damme’s cover. And the whole mystery of it all can be that the warden, doctor, and attorney general were using the Sandman to take out their victims. Sure, that seems like a stupid plan, but I don’t think it would be out of place for this movie.

I just think that there should have been more tying the two plots together aside from “We’re going to transfer the Sandman to fuck with Van Damme because he’s getting too close.” It also annoys me because it took me five minutes to come up with some connecting elements. Did no one read this script and think of this? Or, like most of the movies I cover, am I now applying more thought and scrutiny to this film than it ever received while it was being made? I’m afraid that might be the case, and that’s a shame because this could have been a top tier Van Damme movie if the script had been tightened up to streamline this story instead of just leaving feeling like two separate movies that collide at the end.

Why do I own this?

It’s a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.

Random thoughts 

According to IMDb trivia, this was possibly going to be a Steven Seagal movie. It’s a rule of action movies, if some form of the word “death” or “kill” is in the title, then JCVD or Seagal has to be considered for it.

For the record, Van Damme has been in six movies with “kill,” “die,” or “death” in the title, and Seagal has been in nine movies with “die,” “dead,” “deadly,” or “kill” in the title.

Awesome. An immediate reference to Van Damme's character being French Canadian to explain the accent.

80s and 90s movies have this weird thing with Latino gang members showing up as quasi-comedic relief. This happens in Cobra, too.

"He killed my partner." Classic action movie motivation for not waiting for backup. 

So the Sandman is called that because he dresses in old timey pajamas?

"16 months later." What an odd amount of time later. 

That is quite the love fest Van Damme gets at the police station. 

Sixteen minutes, fifty seconds before the first roundhouse kick. Not bad, but should have been sooner.

Man, that dude in the cafeteria has disgustingly hairy shoulders.

An Asian guy in a Latino gang named Bruce. Why isn't this movie about him?

That's some good interrogating: talk or I'll make you drink piss!

So the government dudes in this movie are okay with sending a foreign police officer into a prison undercover but they draw the line at getting money to him?

What is going on at the assistant to the AG's house? She's eating at a table with three bottles of wine, a four pack of something called "Juice Squeeze,” a wrestler action figure, and she's drinking a Budweiser. Who was the set designer on this? A 12-year-old?

So how does Van Damme know this kid hacker? From the last case? That was a year and a half ago. Plus, Van Damme isn't from the area. I need the backstory on this relationship.

Pretty sure Christopher Mintz-Plasse modeled his acting style on the hacker kid.

I know it’s a Van Damme movie, so he has to have sex with the female lead, but the timing couldn’t be worse. They’ve both just been made to undress in a demeaning way by the guards, so that made them horny? Why did they let Van Damme have a conjugal visit, anyway? They seemed to be suspicious of him and his “wife” yet they let them meet in the sex camper? 

Damn it, the medical waste cabinet is padlocked. Hey, it’s a good thing this bone saw is sitting out on a table near it!

First off, it’s crazy that the Sandman survived being shot by Van Damme in the beginning of the movie. Second, that should have been what got Van Damme to agree to enter the prison in the first place. It makes little sense for him to take on the case without knowing the Sandman would end up in there with him.

This movie needs to be short, and it’s nice how quickly things happen (hell, we’re introduced to Van Damme and the Sandman, and Van Damme is in the prison within the first ten minutes), but it gets a bit too sloppy in the last third. Connecting scenes seem to be missing. Like when does Van Damme get completely released from the hole? When does he meet back up with the other prisoners to plan their break in to the lab? What was going on with Van Damme when Sandman’s goons captured him? All that stuff happens in less than two minutes.

“In the cage, man, a cop is worse than raper.” God DAMN!

Killing prisoners to harvest their organs and a serial killer subplot? This is easily one of the darkest Van Damme movies.

Hairy shoulder man calling Van Damme “scum” is ridiculous. You’re a lackey for organ-harvesters, hairy shoulder man! You don’t get to call anyone scum.

I like how Hawkins tells Van Damme to “stop playing around” after kicking hairy shoulder man three times in the face. Once is enough, apparently. Any more kicks is “playing around.”

Mohawk guy had to have been hired simply for his ability to make stupid faces.

Damn, Priest got taken out exactly like Scatman Crothers in The Shining.

Van Damme flexing while spinning in a circle yelling, “Come on!!!!!!!!” as a comically large wrench hurls towards him is one of the silliest scenes of his career, and that’s saying something.

That prison has one hell of a boiler room complex...

I know the Sandman is crazy and all, but opening a boiler and standing directly in front of it in the middle of a fight with a karate man is pretty fucking stupid.

It’s still one of my favorite Van Damme kills. Kicking a dude into flames is awesome by itself, but when the dude comes back to take a bolt to the back of the head? That makes it special.

How did Van Damme not say, “Sweet dreams” after killing the Sandman? Come on!

The original title was Dusted, which explains why that phrase is used two or three times in the last thirty minutes. I’m not crazy about the title they ended up with, but I think it’s the better of the two.

It seems like there should have been more to the ending. So what happened to the AG who was in charge of it all? His wife finding him holding his assistant at gunpoint is his punishment? 

Thinking on it a bit, I kind of like how abruptly many of JCVD’s movies end. Double Impact had a similarly quick ending. Why dwell on details? The bad guys have been kicked to their deaths, so it’s time to go home. The end. Why mess with that?


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