IN HELL is a 2003 DTV JCVD joint. At the time it was the best 2000s Nu Image/Millennium filmed-in-Bulgaria DTV movie with an action icon getting locked up in a Russian prison, meeting a guy in a wheelchair who shows him the ropes, being mistreated and strung up outside in the cold, and becoming the champion of their fighting circuit. (Then UNDISPUTED II came out.) It’s Van Damme’s last film with director Ringo Lam (CITY ON FIRE, FULL CONTACT), following MAXIMUM RISK and REPLICANT. I like that some of the Hong Kong visual style and emotional sincerity come through, even though I could use fewer scenes where he rolls around in bed remembering flashes of his wife’s murder.
He’s tormented by it. He’s in hell. See, Kyle LeBlanc (Van Damme) was living in Russia temporarily for a job, promising his wife Grey (Marnie Alton, CABIN BY THE LAKE) that they’ll soon return to New Orleans, where I assume he puts on a mullet wig to work as a Chance Boudreaux impersonator. He’s even on the phone talking to her on his drive home, telling her he’s taking the week off to be with her, when he hears her scream. So even though it’s a prison movie Lam makes room for some car stunts including crashing through a fruit cart as LeBlanc rushes home.
We can guess that Grey is a goner and it’s either
A) he’s gonna go to prison for getting revenge on the killer
B) he’s gonna get framed for the murder
I was glad they chose A. No need to turn it into mystery and intrigue and proving innocence and what not. Why not use this sentence in a brutal Russian prison as an opportunity for a clean slate?
As in a vigilante movie like VIGILANTE, DEATH SENTENCE or PEPPERMINT, he goes to court and sees the killer (Mihail Elenov, UNDISPUTED II, EL GRINGO) get off because of The God Damn System and openly taunt him about it. But instead of going home and plotting LeBlanc just takes a gun from a guard’s holster and kills the guy on the spot. I think he’s wearing different clothes when it cuts to his sentencing, but the way it flows it almost seems like they just gave him a trial on the spot.
(I noticed some pretty cool transitions in this one – respectful tip of the hat to editor David M. Richardson [CYBORG 2, BELLY OF THE BEAST, VENGEANCE, ELEPHANT WHITE, MOTORWAY, DRUG WAR, KILL ZONE 2].)
It’s a filthy prison with lots of ragged stone walls and mud puddles, plus the usual dangers like corrupt guards who beat him and put him in solitary and steal his wedding ring (promising us a confrontation to look forward to), and a giant guy (Raicho Vasilev, COMMAND PERFORMANCE, NINJA, Babyface in THE HILLS RUN RED) who singles out our hero for bullying. There are a surprising number of Americans in here, including a spiky haired doofus named Billy Cooper (Chris Moir, HATCHETMAN) and omnipresent scary tattoo guy Robert LaSardo (HARD TO KILL, KING OF NEW YORK, OUT FOR JUSTICE, LEON, DROP ZONE, ONE TOUGH BASTARD, HALF PAST DEAD 2, DEATH RACE, PUNCTURE WOUNDS, THE MULE).
Things get more interesting when the general tries to punish LeBlanc by making him cellmates with the infamous Prisoner 451 (New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, SHAFT ). He’s huge, half-covered in burns, and said to have killed other prisoners. But he ignores LeBlanc to relax and read his book by candlelight. One scary and embarassing moment for LeBlanc is the first time he has to go into the little pen right next to 451 to sheepishly take a shit.
Eventually 451 talks. In fact, we realize he’s the one who’s been weirdly narrating the movie since the beginning. Time passes, LeBlanc gets shaggier, they gain each other’s respect. 451 provides LeBlanc with some philosophical shit to inspire his fights, but also looks disappointed in him when he does fight, because it’s uncivilized and also because it’s selling out to The Man, or in this case The General (Lloyd Battista, writer of COMIN’ AT YA!), the sadistic warden who organizes the fights and watches from a window.
451 is right: before long LeBlanc wins a fight by biting a motherfucker’s throat out. Then he lays on the ground screaming like an animal. A good time to rethink your life choices.
The 451 subplot reminds me a little of PENITENTIARY III, where Too Sweet is banished to the dungeon to be terrorized by the monstrous Midnight Thud, but then he’s the first to see the humanity in him and makes him his trainer. There’s a second character (named Miloc according to Wikipedia, but I can’t find a credit for that character) who is a giant but reminds me of The Midnight Thud because he growls like an animal and they keep him separate and bring him out with a muzzle like an attack dog. When LeBlanc decides to stop fighting they sic this guy on him and I won’t give away how, but he manages to make friends with him. Beautiful. (Also, shades of Master-in-BEYOND-THUNDERDOME, but less tragic.)
Since this is kind of good I decided to look up what else Millennium Films released that year. Yes, something called SHARK ZONE, but also some noteworthy ones: Isaac Florentine’s SPECIAL FORCES (a breakthrough role for Scott Adkins), DETENTION starring Dolph, and the Seagal movies OUT FOR A KILL and BELLY OF THE BEAST. Both are way more ridiculous and disjointed than IN HELL, but in a good way, in my opinion – those are two of my favorites of the Seagal DTV era. And BELLY is a rare case of Seagal dabbling in Hong Kong style thanks to director Ching Siu-Tung (A CHINESE GHOST STORY I-III, SWORDSMAN III: THE EAST IS RED, HEROIC TRIO 2: EXECUTIONERS).
The action of IN HELL is well done, but it’s more about brutality than cinematic flair. The spirit of Hong Kong cinema comes through in the opening muddy, rainy night time fight, the jarring savagery of his wife’s murder, the use of opera music during scary scenes (though it abruptly switches to cheesy electronic stuff when LeBlanc chases the killer), and especially in the brief importance of a giant moth. You can’t tell me random-American-or-European-DTV-director-#42 would’ve wanted a scene where a huge moth flies in and causes LeBlanc to remember a time when a similar moth was in his house and his wife made sure he didn’t kill it. Now this moth not only represents the spirit and memory of his wife, it also foreshadows his adoption of non-violence and mercy. A little glimmer of shamelessly corny beauty in the middle of a gloomy b-movie from the producers of MANSQUITO and OCTOPUS 2: RIVER OF FEAR. Not bad.
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.