The overall quality of Van Damme’s early work is highly debatable. And yet even if you hold a highly favorable view of his first several films, it’s hard to deny that Death Warrant is easily at the bottom of that particular pile. This is a tepid film, at best, that never fully decides what it wants to be. And more’s the pity because, like Lionheart, it had the potential to stand out among these early works.
Van Damme plays Louis Burke, a Canadian cop who travels all the way to Los Angeles in search of The Sandman, a serial killer (who runs around in a trenchcoat and pajamas) responsible for killing Burke’s partner. After taking The Sandman down (in a five minute prologue that’s a pretty amazing microcosm of every cliche found in cop action flicks from the ’80s), Burke is recruited to go undercover to an L.A. prison. The facility has experienced a string of mysterious murders, and they need someone whom the prisoners won’t recognize to go in and investigate.
Burke agrees, though he never really gives a good reason why he should stick his neck out for police and politicians who aren’t even in his own country. Best guess? It’s so he can get conjugal visits from the cute attorney posing as his wife. (This is a thing that actually happens, so maybe this conjecture may be right on the money.)
There’s enough room in the set up for there to be a fun movie here. A prison filled with a bunch of kooky, colorful characters for Van Damme to fight and buddy up with would be supremely entertaining, but neither scribe David S. Goyer (yes, the same one who rebooted Batman with Christopher Nolan) nor director Daran Sarafian really seem to decide on which direction they want to go.
There are definitely some weird characters here, like Priest (Abdul Salam El Razzac), the prison kingpin who somehow has the equivalent of a penthouse in some forgotten wing of the facility, and The Sandman, who somehow is still alive despite having taken six bullets to the chest at the start of the film, but they feel incongruous the rest of the film which wants to be this gritty, quasi-realistic prison thriller.
Such deficiencies could have been overlooked had there at least been a steady stream of action scenes, but there’s a pretty inexcusable dearth of fights to be found here. And what is there trudges forward with bland, boring choreography. At least the final showdown against The Sandman in the prison’s boiler room (because it’s literally impossible for a final showdown in a flick from this era to be held anywhere else) concludes with a decent kill. But what should have been a prime moment for a gloriously cheesy one-liner is passed over so Van Damme can glower at the screen.
And that’s ultimately Death Warrant‘s biggest shortcoming. It’s dour and glum when it should be having fun with itself. Van Damme’s character doesn’t have that much to do, and there are no real opportunities for the script to ever play to his strengths. Van Damme himself doesn’t seem too invested in what’s happening, and who can blame him? Goyer’s script never really provides much of a reason to root for Burke and the stakes are hardly personal beyond simply his own well-being. It’s admirable that Goyer attempted something beyond the typical underdog structure that’s been applied to almost every one of Van Damme’s movies until now, but it just doesn’t work.
Also, poor Robert Guillaume. He’s stuck slumming it up in this and has almost nothing to do other than be the final entry into this odd stretch of JCVD’s career where his characters are teamed up with streetwise black guys.
But fear not! As dour and joyless as this is, the next entry is the polar opposite.
Van Dammage Report Statistics for Death Warrant:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split kicks: 0
Reason for being European: Canadian undercover cop
Best line: “Bring me a dream, Burke. Bring me a dreaaaaaam.” — Patrick Kilpatrick as The Sandman.
Previously on the Van Dammage Report: Lionheart, Kickboxer, Cyborg, Bloodsport.