In Hell

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 [2000]). 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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 30th, 2020 at 8:47 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “In Hell”

  1. This reminds me that I need to get one of those free subs to Rebeller so I can read your Van Damme profile.

  2. This did exceptionally well for a DTV of the time; IIRC it made $22million in US rentals alone. Only ever saw the start of it on TV one time though

  3. I chose to watch FULL CONTACT to remember Ringo Lam when he passed away last week, and it struck me that he should have been a much bigger name. John Woo and Hark Tsui, who also had to go through Van Damme, got a lot more recognition for their efforts. Even if Lam was the better director.

  4. I still haven’t seen that one. Is it any good?

  5. In my humble view it’s an action masterpiece. A meaner version of Chow’s other shoot ’em ups of that time.

  6. Watched it earlier this year and it’s awesome. Simon Yam does a great job on it because it is a tight rope to play and not come across as homophobic.

  7. Van Damme movies made by Hong Kong Action directors stick out like a sore thumb in his filmography
    Hard target – John Woo
    Probably one of the most underrated and balletically beautiful action flicks ever made!

    Double Team / Knock Off – Tsui Hark
    Probably the 2 most inventive, high energy, and downright crazy action films ever made!

    Maximum Risk / Replicant / In Hell – Ringo Lam
    His best acted films and the ones where his characters were more more than just a good or bad guys plus the action rocked!

    I’m sorry whilst his other American directed films are memorable and decent nothing and i mean NOTHING holds a candle to the ones he made with the Hong Kong masters!

  8. Knock Off is ridiculous fun.

  9. I remember this film arriving to a rental store, and I recall it being the very first DTV Damme flick? That’s why I never rented it, because I associated it with crap quality. I enjoyed what Damme did in 90’s and this looked generic as shit. A downfall for a once cool action star. That’s what DTV used to do to actors.

    But you make it sound good. And of course nowadays we all have to look at DTV in a very different light.

  10. I think Legionnaire was his first DTV film in America.

  11. Yeah, in America. I remember that it actually ran in our brand new multiplex back in the day. Looking up IMDB, what about INFERNO? Was that released theatrically? Because it surely went DTV over here.

  12. I believe it went straight to dvd in the US too.

  13. This movie is full of interesting touches, like character actor Juan Fernandez as the effeminate convict. I remember him all the way back as the villain in CROCODILE DUNDEE II and KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS. Plus an appearance from Paulo Tocha, whose association with JCVD goes all the way back to BLOODSPORT when he tried to go kick-for-kick with Frank Dux and lost.

  14. This was a lot darker and slower than I expected…after the opening sequence, it feels like we watch JCVD moping in his cell for forever. However, I still really liked it, and was downright shocked by LT’s performance. I thought he was terrific, and I’m surprised to see on IMDB that he hasn’t done much since.

  15. Interesting trivia about this film and a couple of Van Damme’s previous films:
    David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) shows up in this like Paul, US embassy represents, and he also was the stunt coordinator.
    Leitch was Van Damme’s stunt double in Replicant and The Order (both 2021), and he also had a small role as Detective in The Order.

  16. Ughhh. Could not enjoy this one at all. We spend like an ENTIRE HOUR (after an admittedly fun opening) with JCVD getting his ass handed to him, along with other fun subjects like prison rape and pedophilia. After that ENTIRE HOUR, JCVD finally gets around to leveling up and kicking ass. Time for a badass third act to at least send you on your way satisfied? Only no, we get no time at all to enjoy JCVD actually fighting in prison (in this prison fighting movie) because we immediately launch into him being an animal. He participates in some short, dull fights with no build-up or atmosphere or anticipation. Then the movie decides to lecture us on how fictional violence between highly paid actors and stuntmen is wrong, so JCVD becomes a pacifist and all the prisoners have a sit-in or whatever. Yes, just what I want in an action movie, every character taking a moral stand against fighting. Of course, that doesn’t stop the happy ending being the heroes taking violent, gory revenge on their tormentors, so this movie isn’t even consistent. It’s a hypocrite, it wants to lecture us on how bad fighting is, but still have the villains be defeated through audience-satisfying combat.

    Any single Undisputed movie is better than this, even the first one. MJW and Boyka have more verve, character, and intrigue to them. It’s fun just to see them rebel against the system–NOT constantly getting beaten down. The villains are more colorful and entertaining. The fights are more cinematic and awesome. The messaging is more consistent and doesn’t get in the way of the badass action we’re here to see. And they actually spend time on the tournament plot–the training, the other fighters, the backstage plotting–instead of treating it like a necessary evil to get across a cliched “give peace a chance” message. I don’t give two shits about how good JCVD’s relationship is with the moth ghost of his dead wife. I wanna see someone get kicked in the face, not JCVD scurrying around like a chicken in a Rocky training montage.

  17. But it was funny as hell how they tried to do “JCVD mourns his dead wife! Sad!” scenes at the same time as “Look at this hot chick in a bikini” scenes. About the only storytelling economy in this movie.

    How can you have a character who hates it when people talk unnecessarily and then give him a billion Holden Caulfield monologues about how people suck?

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