Monday, January 4, 2010

Death Warrant (1990) - by Mark Oswald

In my recent quest to have the “definitive action movie collection”, I have become more open to revisiting titles that weren’t exactly my top picks when I had first seen them years before. In the special case of Mr. Van Damme, I have already paid a returning visit to his films, Sudden Death and Maximum Risk. Neither were my favorites by the Muscles from Brussels when I was growing up. I had always looked fonder upon the likes of Hard Target, Timecop, and Double Impact. But like I said, I’ve become more open minded while compiling my action movie library, and when I purchased and watched these films again, I found them both to be highly entertaining. Especially in the case of Sudden Death, which is probably now one of my JCVD favorites.

With Death Warrant, where Jean-Claude plays a cop who goes undercover in a prison to find out who’s been killing his fellow inmates, it was a similar case, however after viewing the film once again, my original opinion hasn’t shifted all that much. That opinion is that Death Warrant is a movie that, while not exactly “bad”, in terms of late 80’s/early 90’s action cinema, doesn’t really have much to offer either. I mean Van Damme is strutting around, kicking people in the face as usual, and the conspiracy story surrounding him isn’t that bad, but unfortunately the way it all plays out didn’t do much for me as a whole. I’m not going to spoil what the actual conspiracy is, but I’ll at least say that I didn’t see it coming, so good for them on that front. There are other good things going on in this movie too, so I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing it. For instance, any time in any JCVD movie, that the filmmakers actually acknowledge the fact that Van Damme was clearly born in a foreign country (in this one he’s from Quebec, Canada), I’m willing to tip my proverbial hat to them.

As far as the villain goes, he actually seems to be a pretty formidable opponent for Van-Damme. He is The Sandman, played by Patrick Kilpatrick (now there’s a name!). I knew that I recognized him from somewhere and it turns out that Van Damme is not the only action hero that he has faced off with. He took on Seagal in Under Siege 2, Schwarzenegger in Eraser, and Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing. In this one, he’s got the extreme creep-factor in his corner. He's also constantly blabbing about how he’s, “The Sandman, and you can’t kill the Sandman”, or something, and I have to say that in many instances he actually makes a pretty good case for himself. In their final battle, he seems to come out of nowhere to attack Van Damme. This clearly flusters our hero and gives us some cause for concern, which doesn’t always happen in these kinds of films. That brings me to another good thing the movie did for itself. It made you worry about Van Damme's character for a good portion of the movie. First of all, he’s a cop, in prison, where cops aren’t looked too fondly at  (see also, Tango & Cash). Then he pisses of the Hispanics, has to meet with the weirdo “mystical inmate” guy that they always have in prison movies, who lives in a different area than the general population. This guy ends up being an ally, but at first he just seems like a genuine whack-job. There’s also a part towards the end where he seems to be getting chased down a corridor by the entire prison population. Then he’s got to worry about the corrupt guards, who even after they find out he’s a cop, do nothing to help him because, you know, they’re dirty (as in crooked, not dirtayyy). So things are pretty well stacked against our hero, and you end up rooting for him all the more because of it.

As I said before, the movie wasn't all that satisfying for me. One thing is that the fights aren’t shot in a very realistic manner, or at very good angles where it actually looks like people are punching and kicking each other. There also isn’t really all that much action. The movie gets bogged down with the mysterious, “What’s happening to the inmates?” plot. Mystery plots in action movies are always a dangerous balance. The movies typically aren’t highbrow enough to spend the necessary time crafting a really solid whodunit. In Death Warrant, I know I said that the actual conspiracy turned out to be pretty good, but it just doesn’t play out in a way that’s especially interesting. Oddly enough, the story was written by Batman Begins and Blade scribe, David S. Goyer. I guess this explains the whole Sandman thing, which sort of sounds like a character that might show up in a Blade or Batman movie. Not Spiderman though. Not at all…

So in closing this out, I’d say that this film is primarily recommended to serious Van Damme fans, or fans of the ‘prison movie’ genre. For better examples of Van Dammage I’d recommend Sudden Death, Timecop, and most definitely The Muscles’ newest flick, JCVD, which I can honestly say was one of my very favorite movies of 2008. Truly a sight to be seen.

One more thing I have to mention, though, is the appearance of Al Leong, a familiar face to any respectable action movie fan. He’s had small parts in films including, but not limited to, Big Trouble in Little China, Lethal Weapon, Action Jackson, Die Hard (pictured), They Live, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Perfect Weapon, Rapid Fire, Army of One, Beverly Hills Cop 3, The Shadow, Double Dragon, Escape from L.A., The Replacement Killers, and Godzilla. I miss not seeing him pop up in random movies these days, always sporting the skullet and long goatee, and always ready to fight. I guess that his absence may be one of the true signs that The Golden Age of Action Cinema is truly behind us. Here’s hoping for a new renaissance though!

Body Count (including offscreen/implied) - 9

Times JCVD kicks someone in the face - 14 (He knows what the people come to see)

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