Van Dammage Report: Death Warrant

Van Damme Death Warrant

So. Death Warrant.

It’s been about two months since I last posted a new Report, but that’s in large part because I’ve been putting off watching Death Warrant. It’s easily my least favorite of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s early films and, frankly, I just flat didn’t really feel like slogging through it. I will say that this viewing fared a little better than the last time or two that I gave it a go, but it’s still not a very good (or very fun) movie.

And if you already consider Van Damme’s films to be of dubious quality, well, that probably speaks volumes about Death Warrant.

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. There have been 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. My best guess is that 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 I’m on the money here.)

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 with it.

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 prison, 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.

That issue could have been overlooked had there at least been a steady stream of fun action scenes, but there’s a pretty inexcusable dearth of fights to be found here. And what is there is underwhelming at best. No splits, no split kicks. He mostly just uses the same two or three moves for every fight, all of which are over in two minutes or so, tops. 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) is alright with a decent kill for when Burke dispatches him. 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 I guess that’s my big problem with Death Warrant. 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 and, ahem, unique charisma.

Van Damme himself doesn’t seem too invested in what’s happening, and I can’t really say I blame him. There’s not much of a reason to root for his character and the stakes are hardly personal beyond simply his personal well-being, so there’s not much to gravitate toward here. I appreciate that this was at least an attempt to go beyond the typical underdog structure that’s been applied to almost every one of his 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.

Thankfully, as joyless and dour as this may be, the next film in Van Damme’s filmography is Double Impact, one of my favorites and one of his best. Check back for that one soon.

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: LionheartKickboxerCyborgBloodsport.