Action Heroes – Van Damme: Death Warrant

First I must confess that I am almost a Van Damme novice having only seen two films from his considerable output. Death Warrant was released in 1990 and it came just as he was becoming a major movie star. Jean Claude Van Damme has arrived in Hollywood in the early 80’s but could not establish himself straight away due to the action genre being dominated by Arnie and Sly. As they both moved on to bigger and more family friendly projects there was a gap in the market. The muscles from Brussels gladly stepped in to usher in a new era of action hero.

Here we find Van Dame as a Canadian police man Louis Burke tracking an insane serial killer called the Sandman, who seems like a jovial enough guy with catchphrases such as ‘time to sleep’. Having dispatched with that situation he is given a new mission of going undercover into a maximum security prison to uncover why nine inmates have died mysteriously.

The prison is a strange place indeed seemingly getting its light source from a solitary energy saving light bulb. There also seems to be an amazing steam problem from somewhere, making me think that dry cleaners had set up shop somewhere inside. Even worse is the subterranean level which is run by a gay Black panther called Priest who regularly calls his drug supplier on his cell phone. Credibility isn’t exactly high on the agenda in Death Warrant as the prison and the steam allows plenty of opportunities for our hero to strip down to reveal those actual muscles.

Once the mystery is solved those in power need to get rid of Louis so they send the still alive Sandman to the prison. Here he gets to unveil his new catchphrase if nothing else (give me a dream) before getting dressed up as part Michael Jackson, part MC Hammer.  Naturally this leads to a Commando style showdown with plenty of naked muscles, gay imagery and of course even more steam.

Death Warrant is utterly hysterical, but sadly seems to be taking itself quite seriously in parts. The cast beyond Van Damme is a mix of people you’ve seen in the background in other films and Cynthia Gibb from Youngblood as the anemic love interest. For a film with so much actual steam the conjugal visit between Louis and Amanda (Gibb) at the prison is about as hot as an iceberg. Other laughable characters are the tech geek youngster complete with acne and glasses and the violent prison guard, Sergeant DeGraf, who cracks his monkey nuts with his nightstick.  

The most disappointing aspect of Death Warrant is the actual amount of action contained in the film. Apart from his trademark roundhouse kicks Van Damme does very little for the first hour apart from stare with menace and talks as little as possible. Amazingly his answer to everything is no more than four or five words which most probably ensured that no subtitles were needed due to his accent. He does though bare his chest quite often and looks as though he’s going to go Bruce Lee on people but seldom does. The action does pick up towards the end but it’s shocking to me that a man so versed in martial arts is made to do more acting than fighting.

The lack of a decent montage is also a disastrous omission as we never get to see Van Damme put together a decent training video to showcase his dedication to something. The soundtrack plays like the off-cuts from Cobra further enhancing this films feel as a true B-movie with some attempted gloss. The prison set is essentially a communal area and some rooms making it all look exceedingly cheap. As the prisoners run around in  the corridors you tend to think it’s the same exact corridor over and over just with more steam utilized to camouflage it.

My third experience of the great Van Damme is over and I must confess that I still have to be convinced to his action hero status. Thinking back to the Van Damme clips I have seen over the years all I can ever remember him doing are roundhouse kicks and the splits. As for his acting he suffers from a lack of charisma that the likes of Arnie and Sly had in abundance but he’s no worse than his rival Steven Segal. Death Warrant is a load of nonsense that should only be watched if you’re looking to poke fun at it. Should this be the case you’re in for a superb night, but as an action classic it’s basically awful.

Aled Jones


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