Director: Deran Sarafian
Producer: Mark DiSalle
Writer: David S. Goyer
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Robert Guillaume, Cynthia Gibb, George Dickerson, Patrick Kilpatrick, Dean Colbby, Art LaFleur, Abdul Sazaam El Razzac, Joshua John Miller, Hank Stone, Conrad Dunn, Al Leong, Paulo Tocha
Running Time: 90 min.
By Kyle Warner
When Jeffrey Bona, operator of City on Fire, told me that he’d like to see every Jean-Claude Van Damme flick reviewed at the site, I might’ve laughed. Figuring that sure, we’ll review a JCVD movie here and there, but c’mon man, all of ’em? It can’t be done—and what’s more, I’m not sure that it should be done! Some dreams are best left as just that: dreams. But when 1990’s Death Warrant showed up on my doorstep, I realized this was no laughing matter. The man was serious! And what’s more; it’d apparently fallen to me to tackle much the rest of the actor’s filmography. Should I feel honored or terrified? Perhaps both, for to navigate the long-forgotten parts of Van Damme’s career can be compared to a film buff’s journey into the heart of darkness. And remember, one should never get off the boat. You’re absolutely goddamn right, Chef.
Death Warrant is the movie where Van Damme goes to prison to sort out justice. And as a prison movie, I think it probably has more in common with Ernest Goes to Jail than The Shawshank Redemption. From the start, it’s unclear if this is a bad action movie or a very sly comedy. (I remain convinced that it was going for comedy at least part of the time, though the delivery is so lacking that it results in zero laughs, only groans.) Jean-Claude Van Damme is a total badass cop out of Canada that’s looking for revenge against the serial killer who murdered his partner. It’s the usual “Wait for backup!” vs. “He killed my partner!” argument as Van Damme goes rogue and attacks the serial killer known as the Sandman. Flash-forward a bit and Van Damme’s given a new and (it seems) totally unrelated assignment: go undercover in a prison to find out the cause of a series of suspicious deaths. Seems someone’s been driving a spike through the brains of various inmates. Van Damme’s first assumption is that it’s a serial killer, because he’s just dealt with the Sandman, and this is the 90’s where serial killers were everywhere! But other lingering theories hold more water: it could be an illegal program run by corrupt guards, or perhaps ritual killings by one of the many gangs in the prison. Van Damme must find out! So, he assumes the identity of a carjacker, slips into the jail, and starts asking questions.
In prison, Van Damme meets every prisoner stereotype imaginable and a more than a few “That Guy” character actors (Robert Guilluame, Art LaFleur, Armin Shimerman). Van Damme asks seemingly every sane inmate he can find about the dead guys with the scrambled brains but everyone’s suspiciously hush-hush about it. Are they scared? Is it a cover-up? Do they just not want to talk to him because he’s Canadian? Fear not, Van Damme will discover the truth, even if we don’t really care!
Directed by Deran Sarafian (Terminal Velocity), Death Warrant presents us with the most stylized and unbelievable of movie prisons. One can imagine that Sarafian’s major screen directions were, “More smoke! More lights!” It ends up looking like a popstar music video. If only Van Damme could sing… Van Damme spends most his time in prison busting out of his shirts that are two sizes too small. So, umm, maybe it’ll appeal to a different sort of Van Damme fan than myself.
Today, Death Warrant might be best recognized as the first writing credit for screenwriter David S. Goyer, who has since made a name for himself as the go-to writer in superhero cinema. In his writing and his story credits, Goyer has given us some of the best (Batman Begins, Blade II, The Dark Knight) and some of the worst (Batman v Superman, Blade: Trinity, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) of the modern superhero film. Death Warrant is a different sort of movie, obviously, but it serves as a reminder that sometimes it takes a while for a creative talent to come into his or her own. Death Warrant is a stupid movie and much of that starts with the screenplay, which has a half-baked plot, lame dialogue, forced romance, and a finale that goes off the rails. I do appreciate Goyer’s attempts of working slasher horror into the prison movie genre, though. The Sandman and the killings happening behind bars are reminiscent of the sort of stuff you’d see in Halloween or Scream. So, when Van Damme must come face to face with these evils, there is some fun to be had in watching a martial artist take on a wannabe Jason Voorhees.
The film’s final moments are so rushed that I think the characters were more than ready to leave the theatre and beat the audience to the doors. Though Death Warrant may lack the name recognition of Derailed and Cyborg, don’t be fooled; this is one of Van Damme’s weakest films. Dumb, unintentionally silly, and lacking in surprises, I gotta recommend you skip this one unless you’re a JCVD superfan.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 4/10