It’s always a great feeling to realize half way through a film that should by all measure suck more than a hooker convention that you’re smiling like an idiot. This was the reaction I had to Ringo Lam’s “In Hell” starring none other than Jean Claude Van Damme, former football star Lawrence Taylor, ten thousand Right Said Fred look-alikes, and a host of direct to DVD action movie second bananas. In Hell is, at its core, a fist-fight movie like pretty much every other movie old Jean Claude’s got on his resume’. What sets this one apart is he allows Ringo Lam to abandon all, and I mean every single frame, of martial arts flash Van Damme fans have come to expect, and substitutes gritty, bad-ass bare-knuckled fisticuffs that elevate the realism of the film by several orders of magnitude.
Kyle LeBlanc (Van Damme) a construction foreman in post-Glasnost Whofuckincaresograd races home to find that someone has just raped and murdered his wife. He kills the guy in the lobby of the courthouse where the rapist/murderer receives a slap on the wrist and his freedom following allegations of Police bungling and insufficient evidence.
LeBlanc receives much harsher justice; life in prison without possibility of parole, and is sent to the Kravivi Prison in Somefuckinplaceistan where the guards are, naturally, corrupt, gangs rule the yard, and Americans are the lowest life form on the prison food chain. Van Damme is the very lowest too, set upon by both prison gangs he is mercilessly beaten on several occasions within the first half hour of the movie.
Since this is essentially a fisticuffs movie the General in charge of the prison runs black market fights and uses the warring gangs within the barbed wire and crumbling stone as his personal profit making Rock em’ Sock em’ Robots.
Thrusts into this microcosm of violence are LeBlanc and a young American college kid named Billy Cooper, both are overwhelmed by the experience. To his credit, Van Damme who’s always been considered a lesser (much lesser) actor than his action star contemporaries really manages to emote the fear and bewilderment someone like him would feel being in just such a situation. He is not cool, he has no friends, he is fresh meat, and rounding out his character rather well, he wants to die.
Ringo Lam shot almost all of this in a real Bulgarian prison in all its Stalinist glory and the visuals are striking. Prisoners are housed twenty to a room in some cases, and alone in others (depending on their ability to bribe the guards), and the cells are tiny, stone, hard, rough and dirty, so much that I could almost smell the place. Lighting is scarce and offers about the same visuals as you’d get in a Holocaust film or prison camp drama. The prisoners eat from tin bowls with wooden spoons, the food is awful, and looks it too.
When Van Damme strikes out at a prison rapist who’s had his way, very graphically, with Billy Cooper, he’s shoved into “the hole”. But, this hole differs from any solitary confinement that prison movie fans are used to seeing. It’s even worse than the regular cells, almost like a monk’s cell, with a stone slab for a bed, a single incandescent light, and an open sewer running through a depression in the floor.
We get lots of scenes of Jean Claude in the hole, and it helps with the passage of time, and to illustrate the depths of his anguish. At one point he tries to hang himself with scraps of his shirt, but fails, in another he collapses against the door and weeps.
I know, it sounds corny as hell, but I was moved.
Once the film establishes the condition of the prison though it never allows itself to simply follow the plot we’d expect. It isn’t all about the fighting. All of the characters have complex back-stories, and
Jorge Alvares’ script spends ample time with them all. We get a subplot about another American, this one crippled, who sells merchandise to prisoner and guard alike, we get the continuing story of Billy Cooper who become the prize winning forced prostitute of a sadistic guard commander, there is the other guy who continuously plans escapes, the warring gangs of Russian mafia family members who’s conflict provides most of the impetus for the General’s fights, and finally we get Lawrence Taylor’s story of life in Kravivi. He’s considered crazy and his uneasy scenes with Van Damme cowering on his bunk help illustrate the feelings of loss and inhumanity so prevalent in the film.
Van Damme, of course, to deal with his predicament snaps and gives us the standard working out and getting strong montage, but this one is a little different. We can see he’s lost his mind, his soul, and that with every pushup he becomes more and more like the animals with which he’s housed.
Van Damme takes to the fight game with relish, and after dispatching the leader of one Russian gang, is elevated to the General’s star fighter. With each fight he loses more and more humanity. He forces respect through violence to the point that he eventually tries to power play Lawrence Taylor’s character 451.
When Billy raped to death Van Damme refuses to fight, and his punishment galvanizes the other prisoners who, by refusing to play enemies, disrupt all of the General’s plans.
Of course this sets up a final confrontation with the fighter trucked in from another prison, and a final confrontation with the guards.
I am only touching on the depth of the plot here, and there are lots of little great touches to discover.
Is everything perfect? Well no, of course not. But there is so much good material here that it’s really easy to ignore the little things that don’t work. Lawrence Taylor’s narration is more annoying than informative, Billy Cooper reacts to his predicament with the same fear he had going in, and I figure being bent over and ass-raped by a
Russian mob guy would probably make most people catatonic, at least for a while. Most of the principle supporting characters are the same guys we’ve seen in almost every martial arts/action movie in direct to DVD titles; the little tattooed guy from Under Siege as a Russian gang leader, the Cuban second banana villain in Crocodile Dundee 2 as a transvestite prisoner/cheerleader. Both are pretty good actors, but they aren’t given much to do here, and it’s a shame. I liked seeing that they still get roles, I just wish they’d had better ones.
Ringo Lam has thankfully ignored the trend of shaking the camera around during fight sequences. In many cases he is perfectly happy to park the camera on the sidelines and let the fight take place in center frame. This offers a great vantage point from which to dissect the fight choreography (it’s excellent) and to marvel in the rough and nasty street fighting on display.
Considering the pantheon of prison exploitation movies contains maybe four good ones, Escape from Alcatraz, The Birdman of Alcatraz, Midnight Express, and Bad Boys, with the rest circling the drain beside an open sewer in some Bulgarian prison, In Hell proudly joins the former.
DEJ Productions In Hell DVD comes with only a few extras, it’s widescreen (YEY!), a making of featurette that is less informative than it could have been, and a trailer. The film also spools out in English, Dubbed into French or Spanish and with subs for all three.
So what is In Hell? It’s not a straight martial arts picture, it’s not an action movie as there aren’t any really big kabooms, it’s not straight drama, it’s not an examination of prison conditions, it’s not a romance, and it’s not a straight tale of redemption or revenge. What In Hell offers is a masterful melding of all these genre types into one surprising, gritty, and eminently watchable movie.
It’s a shame that this didn’t show up in US Cinemas because it could have, if marketed correctly, helped resurrect a career that was at one time just shy of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and more recently somewhere between Steven Seagal and the Dell Computer Interns from those infuriating commercials. I suffered through a cinema screening of Seagal’s "Half Past Dead", a film less than one fiftieth the film experience of In Hell.