Action Movie Fanatix Review: In Hell

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lawrence Taylor, Marnie Alton, Malakai Davidson, Billy Rieck

Director: Ringo Lam

2003  |  98 Minutes  |  Rated R

“Without evil, we would never recognize good.” – 451

We have seen prison fight club movies before.  In order to stand out from the crowd In Hell would have to be something really original and just having Jean-Claude Van Damme star wouldn’t be enough.

When his wife’s murderer is found not guilty, Kyle LeBlanc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) kills the murderer in front inside the courthouse.  LeBlanc is sentenced to life inside Russia’s most corrupt prison where the warden forces prisoners to fight each other to the death.  At first, Kyle resists joining in the fights but soon he embraces it and becomes one of them.

Van Damme shows a lot of heart.  Had it not been for his performance, In Hell would have felt very flat.  Van Damme is able to really make you feel for his character without even saying anything in a lot of scenes.  There were a few scenes that seemed just a couple seconds too short…almost like Ringo Lam was trying to give us a glimpse of LeBlanc’s emotions before quickly yanking it away.

LeBlanc’s dead wife comes to him in two ways throughout the film.  The first way is through flashbacks.  These are very well done and show Kyle going back to a happier time.  The second way she comes back to him is as a sort of glowing angel (think Return of the Jedi).  These just seem cheesy in a movie where everything else is so dark.  I would have much preferred that she give the same speech while in a flashback.  It would have made much more sense in the context of the rest of the movie.

Lawrence Taylor’s character, 451, is the conscience of the movie as well as the narrator.  When Kyle LeBlanc gives in to the violence 451 pulls him back.  His character would have been much better had he not been the narrator.  The story would have been told much better with much less having to be told what he is thinking and just being able to watch it and figure it out.  We already know that he refuses to fight and then had a flashback showing his past and how he got the burns on his back.  Do we really need the hulking 451 to read his diary to us?

Other than the previously noted mistakes Ringo Lam does a does a passable job as director.  He is able to pull some really convincing performances out of Van Damme, Taylor and a host of unknowns.  The sets are dingy and gloomy.  The warden and his guards are complete scum that you can’t wait to see get their comeuppance.  My only other complaint is that the very end of the movie just has text that tells you the outcome.  Its just a copout from a director that has been around for quite a while and should know better by now.

The fights are really well choreographed.  You don’t get the sense that the martial arts that these prisoners are performing would be out of the realm of their knowledge.  The fights feel realistic in that way.  They are MMA based fights using a lot of grappling, throws and ground fighting instead of long distance jumping or spinning kicks.

In Hell probably won’t be different enough from other prison fight club movies for most people but I did enjoy it.  Although it is flawed in many ways it also has some great fight scenes as well as some emotional performances by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Lawrence Taylor.  For me it was well worth my time and money.