Tuesday, August 11, 2020

In Hell - Van Damme Goes to Prison...and Grows a Beard

Another month, another Van Damme movie. I’m still sticking with the more obscure DTV films for the moment, so that I can save some of the classics for later on. Plus, I don’t remember most of these films at all, so it’s nice to revisit them to see if I actually like them. In Hell was a pleasant surprise, even if the fight scenes were disappointing.

Bearded Van Damme

Despite In Hell’s plot involving revenge and organized prison fighting, it’s not really an action movie. This is very much a drama, as the film is much more concerned with the two types of prison: literal and of the mind. This is why Van Damme’s character ends up growing a beard. In Hell is about how prison can transform a person, and for Van Damme, that change is signified by his appearance. 

But before I delve too deep into Van Damme’s beard, I want to get into the literal prison in the film. When you title a film In Hell, you better make sure the prison is especially terrible. The filmmakers do a pretty good job at making the prison seem like the worst place on earth. The old standards are there: corrupt guards, rape, drug use, beatings, murder, etc. The fighting racket is a unique touch, with the prison officials condoning it and even inviting friends (and their kids!) to watch and bet on them. You truly get the sense that this place has no oversight and is completely controlled by the warden and the guards, and if you run afoul of them, death could be a mercy compared to other fates they have planned. 

Van Damme’s character, Kyle LeBlanc (good call with the French last name), is in prison before he ever reaches this terrible place. His wife is murdered in a random act of violence, and the murderer is set free. In a fit of rage, Kyle takes a policeman’s gun and kills the murderer in the courthouse after the acquittal. Already a broken man, he’s sentenced to life in prison (since the guy he killed was connected to the mob, and the judge is corrupt). 

In prison, Kyle suffers from constant flashbacks to his wife’s murder. He is thrown into solitary after attacking a man he envisioned as his wife’s killer. While in solitary (a typically disgusting cell with what appears to be sewage running through it), Kyle tries to kill himself multiple times, but fails. He is cursed to survive.

Kyle receives glimmers of hope, mainly through visions of his wife and a moth which seems to be his reincarnated wife. But it’s not enough and prison finally breaks him. To adapt, he grows a beard and begins furiously working out so he can fight. At this point, Kyle is more of a feral beast than a lost soul. He just wants to take his aggression out on someone. After some success in the fights, he comes back to humanity, but now as a much darker person, which is why he slicks back his hair and shaves his beard into a goatee. Before, he looked like some castaway from a deserted island, but his new look made him appear to be fitting in at the prison, which is worse than any other persona he has adopted.

When Kyle transforms he has given up on leaving the prison, both literally and figuratively. The prison is his home now (which is why he tells his brother-in-law to forget about him), but more importantly, he has entered the prison of his mind at this point. He’s no longer living for his wife; he’s living for the prison, leaving him dead inside. It takes the final words of a dying fellow inmate to wake Kyle up. He protests the fights, and eventually escapes the prison completely with plans to expose the corruption he experienced.

All of this is presented very unambiguously, which is the main weakness of the film. Prisoners say things like, “He is fighting...for himself,” “Don’t let this place turn you into something you’re not,” and “Do you even know who you are?” It’s too obvious at times, which is unfortunate because these moments could be easily cut out. It just weakens the film because it assumes the audience will be too dumb to realize what’s happening. This doesn’t ruin the film, but it definitely takes you out of it (all that’s missing is Damon Wayans from Don’t Be a Menace… popping in and yelling, “Message!”). 

Van Damme’s understated performance overshadows the weakness of the script, though. Much like in another film directed by Ringo Lam (Replicant), Van Damme is able to accomplish a lot through conveying convincing suffering. What sets this role apart is his ability to portray a broken man in silence. Van Damme’s face, especially as he’s aged, is his best performance asset. You look at him just sitting silently in the yard at the prison, and you understand that this man is devoid of hope.

Van Damme’s performance is why I can give this a film a pass for not featuring some truly badass fight scenes or really any martial arts from Van Damme. Once you get past that this is not your typical Van Damme film, you can see that it’s a rare attempt at a character study. It’s unfortunate that In Hell is a rarity, because every time Van Damme is given the chance to flex his acting chops (like in Replicant or JCVD), he nails it. Hopefully as time progresses and action roles become less believable for him, more parts like this will become available. Van Damme will one day be unable to do the splits and nail a roundhouse kick, but he’ll never be too old to grow a drama beard.

Why Do I Own This?

It’s a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Although owning this is easier since it is part of a three-pack along with Derailed and Wake of Death.

Random Thoughts

Whoever put this three-pack together is a fool. Derailed gets its own disc, but In Hell and Wake of Death are on a fucking flipper?

And they mislabeled the sides of the flipper disc. In fact, they only mislabeled one side because the other side is blank. I bought this off Amazon, but it’s giving off a real street vendor in Pakistan vibe.

This is directed by Ringo Lam, who also directed Maximum Risk and Replicant. He’s more remembered for his earlier work in Hong Kong, but these three Van Damme movies are solid. And I consider Replicant to be one of Van Damme’s best.

The only other issue I have with the plot is the Shawshank element at the end with Van Damme leaving with documents meant to expose the prison corruption. We’re repeatedly reminded of the fact that this is a Russian prison, therefore it’s insanely corrupt. It’s not like this one particular prison has a bad rap. This is assumed to be happening at any Russian prison. Odds are no one’s going to care about those documents, despite the film’s happy ending claiming that the prison was shut down in a year. It just felt tacked on. I guess it’s a bit of character development in that he has a new reason to live, but it just felt a little too sappy for a movie called In Hell.

Being the wife of a Van Damme character is the most dangerous job in the world. You have a 75% chance of being raped, kidnapped, and/or killed. And it doesn’t matter if Van Damme is a cop or a criminal or a steel mill engineer…

Being his kid is no walk in the park, either. Thankfully, he’s childless in this one.

The weird techno music that starts when Van Damme chases after his wife’s killer is odd, to say the least. We just went from opera music while his wife was viciously murdered to what sounds like the score to a Matrix rip-off.

I completely forgot the part where Van Damme becomes a human speed bump for a moped.

Most of these DTV Van Damme movies have at least one random notable co-star. For this one, it’s Lawrence Taylor...as a murderous prison poet.

David Leitch (who’s gone on to work on John Wick and direct Deadpool 2 and Hobbs and Shaw) did stunts and has a small part in this movie.

“I’m going to make you my favorite sucker.” Listen here, you Russian scumbag: Van Damme doesn’t suck dick, he gets his dick sucked!

The fucking Russian mobsters who show up to watch the prison fights bring their kids for Van Damme’s fight. It’s like a Yakov Smirnoff joke: in America, you take children to Disneyland; in Russia, you take them to prison fights!

I like that Van Damme has to train to become a badass. In too many movies, he plays a regular guy who is somehow a martial arts master. Here, he has to work at it.

“He should fight.”
“He is fighting...for himself.” That’s a bit too hokey coming from two inmates in a Russian prison.