This is the early Van Damme picture that was written by David S. Goyer of BLADE fame. I know that guy has gotten some shit since he directed BLADE 3 and it wasn’t as good as the other two, but I give him credit. Sure, his directing needs work, but BLADE 1-2 are A+ action screenplays with the ideal balance of humor, brooding, swagger, mythological mumbo jumbo and pitch perfect build to moments of badass payoff and clever action scenes. Plus he worked on DARK CITY and BATMAN BEGINS, and I say anyone who works with Chris Nolan but also wrote a movie for Van Damme is worthy of respect.
In this one Van Damme plays a cop from Quebec (they always gotta have a different excuse for his accent) who puts five shots in a serial killer called The Sandman, then gets sent on a mission undercover in a prison to investigate mysterious inmate murders. Robert Guillame plays his best friend in prison, and I’m not sure how BENSON ended but he must’ve been up on some serious corruption charges to wind up in this place. He also got stabbed in the eye so he looks like a kindly, smaller Tiny Lister.
Prison movies are usually mighty Christian – they forgive most of the characters even though they did bad things. And they always have segregated gangs but the hero proves his worth to one of the other races and then they have his back. So Van Damme is down with the blacks more than the white dude with the mohawk and the names of his kills tattooed on the side. All prison movies are kind of the same but this one has the advantage of a hero who can do a spinkick during a mess hall tussle. That’s a good one. The murder plot is pretty funny too, it involves organ smuggling. As much as I talked up Goyer as a writer a few paragraphs ago I do have to admit he disappointed me with his restraint here. Van Damme gets a physical and they point out he has a rare blood type. That seems like it could only possibly be there to set up some ludicrous reason why a rare blood type is needed, but sadly they let that one go. (To be fair it isn’t as out of place as the titanium knee in Seagal’s undercover-in-prison movie HALF PAST DEAD).
Also I think parts of it make no sense. A teen hacker (Joshua Miller, the obnoxious kid from NEAR DARK, RIVER’S EDGE and CLASS OF 1999) breaks into the prison computer and the passwords are things like “Morpheus” and “sleep” to foreshadow the return of The Sandman. But when Sandman does show up at the prison it’s kind of arbitrary, not part of some master plan that should include themed code names and passwords.
Still, Goyer does manage to find ways to keep things lively despite the isolated location. You get an explosion or two, medical power tools, an ax, a guy on fire. The climactic duel with the Sandman is a good one. He unscrews a lightbulb, breaks it and uses it like you’d use a bottle in a bar fight. Try to remember that in case you’re ever in a jam. Sandman’s smart to think of that but he balances it out with the stupidity of standing in front of the entrance to a burning room and yelling “Welcome to Hell!” Should it really surprise him that Van Damme kicks him into the fire? I don’t think it should. That’s not a spoiler for how he dies, the actual death is better but I won’t give it away. [but maybe he doesn’t die anyway, who knows?]).
Not too bad. Not one of my favorite Van Dammes, but worth my time.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.