A viewing of In Hell will likely leave Jean-Claude Van Damme fans a bit torn.
On the one hand, here you have a film that explicitly attempts to break the mold a bit by providing its headlining star with a character and scenario that are markedly different from his more expected fare. It’s a film that relies on Van Damme’s ability to emote more than his ability to throw a kick or land a punch. It’s a film that requires you to invest in one man’s descent into darkness and his fight to crawl back from the edge. For the most part, these things are accomplished.
On the other, it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity. In Hell marks the third and (as yet) final collaboration between Van Damme and Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, the man responsible for delivering one of JCVD’s best films (Maximum Impact). There is little to be found here that would indicate such a collaboration took place.
Van Damme is Kyle LeBlanc, an American contractor working at a steel mill in Russia. He wants nothing more than to spend more time with his wife, but he comes home one evening to find she’s been raped and murdered. Kyle, incapable of accepting that the corrupt judges allowed the killer to walk, steals a police officer’s gun and shoots the perpetrator right outside the courtroom. In what was probably the shortest legal turnaround ever (they probably just marched him back into that same courtroom five minutes after he pulled the trigger), Kyle is sentenced to life in prison without parole in a dank, dirty hole of a Russian prison complete with hard labor and, as is wont to happen in these types of films, gladiator-style fights among the inmates.
With nothing left to lose Kyle finds himself in a downward spiral of grief and despair, eventually pushing himself to his physical limits as he becomes a near-unstoppable force fighting for the whims and pleasure of the powers that be.
As far as DTV action flicks go, In Hell doesn’t really do much that you haven’t seen anywhere (read: everywhere) else when it comes to the “hero gets thrown in a ratty prison” subgenre. Although, it’s almost a bit unfair to even call it an action movie. Sure, it’s got an acclaimed Hong Kong action director at the helm and its plot hinges on Kyle fighting. But punching and kicking aren’t really the point. Lam isn’t interested in how Kyle kicks and punches, but why. If this were a movie largely concerned about its action, Van Damme’s character would have been a martial arts guy (either motivated within the story or simply arbitrarily so). There would have been split kicks and roundhouses and that sharp blow (via either open palm or closed fist) to the abdominal area that Van Damme loves to do. In Hell contains not a single instance of any of those signature moves. Kyle wins his fights through sheer ferocity more than any modicum of fighting acumen he manages to acquire.
Instead, Lam and Van Damme want to tell a story about a man on the brink of losing his humanity after he’s lost literally everything else. Only the memory of his wife can bring him back from the edge as he struggles to even remember who he once was. In a way, it’s hard not to see this as one big metaphor for Van Damme’s personal struggles. He’d battled substance abuse, went through multiple divorces and watched as his once marquee-headlining career get shoved to the shelves of the video store. Everything he’s ever loved had by that point been taken from him in one form or another. His bread-and-butter has always been action, but as his career goes on it becomes more clear that the man has a desire to break beyond fisticuffs. Is the notion of a man forced to fight for others’ entertainment until he becomes a soulless shell a sly bit of meta-commentary on Van Damme’s part? There’s little out there in the way of insight from the man himself to back up that sort of assessment, as he has never really talked about this film in-depth, but at the very least it feels like it could be true.
Given what’s brewing under the hood, it’s a shame then that the film itself isn’t more engaging. Van Damme tries his hardest to wring as much scruffy, desperate emotion as he can but the story and his character are simply too underwritten for it to go anywhere terribly interesting and ends up being something of a drag to get through. The fights (and action scenes in general) are serviceable enough, but again, they’re shot and choreographed to be more harrowing than exciting though you can certainly say the desired goal was achieved. The characters, such as they are, end up being little more than thin cliches found in nearly every other film of this rank and file.
In Hell isn’t a good movie. It’s decent at best, though thoroughly disappointing as a Ringo Lam joint. It’s impossible to ignore and gloss over, however, and may actually provide a sobering look at the mind of a man still trying to pull himself together.
Van Dammage Report statistics for In Hell:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split kicks: 0
Reason for being European: None specifically given, although it’s said he and his wife are from Louisiana so perhaps he has some French ancestry stemming from the region.
Best line: N/A
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Derailed | The Order | Replicant | Desert Heat | Legionnaire | Knock Off | Double Team | Maximum Risk| The Quest | Sudden Death | Street Fighter | Timecop | Hard Target | Nowhere to Run | Universal Soldier | Double Impact | Death Warrant | Lionheart | Kickboxer | Cyborg | Bloodsport