Death Warrant, 1990.
Directed by Deran Serafian.
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cynthia Gibb, Art LaFleur, Patrick Kilpatrick, Robert Guillaume, Joshua John Miller, George Dickerson, Conrad Dunn and Abdul Salaam El Razzac.
A French Canadian cop goes undercover in a violent prison to investigate the deaths of several inmates but soon uncovers a plan to harvest human organs.
1990’s Death Warrant is often overlooked in the much-celebrated early (i.e. pre-Street Fighter) career of Jean-Claude Van Damme but thankfully the good folk at 101 Films have seen fit to give it a Blu-ray release to sit alongside their recent reissues of Black Eagle and A.W.O.L., which is a good chance to give this film another look.
French Canadian cop Louis Burke (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is on the trail of a serial killer known as The Sandman (Patrick Kilpatrick – Class of 1999), whom he tracks into a derelict building and swiftly unloads his gun into the deranged madman. For his next case Burke is sent undercover to the Harrison State Prison in California to investigate the mysterious deaths of several inmates. Once inside Burke has to rely on his martial arts skills to stay alive as he discovers that prisoners are being murdered for their organs, and not only does he have to try and keep one step ahead of sadistic prison guard Sergeant DeGraff (Art LaFleur – Cobra) and the other prisoners who don’t take kindly to his interactions with black inmate Hawkins (Robert Guillaume – Benson) but while Burke is trying to find out what is going on, Harrison becomes the permanent home of a new prisoner, The Sandman.
Death Warrant is a film that is better than the sum of its parts because, like a lot of late ‘80s/early ‘90s action movies, when you break it down into its various components it isn’t actually that great. However, Death Warrant doesn’t have pretensions of being anything other than the prison action movie that it is, making it a decent no-brainer that entertains on a basic level. The organ harvesting plot is never really expanded on once Burke and Amanda (Cynthia Gibb – Youngblood), a young attorney posing as Burke’s wife, expose the conspiracy and feels like something that was quickly inserted into the story, to be forgotten about once The Sandman makes his return.
And that is what this film is all about, pitting JCVD against a seemingly unstoppable villain, and Death Warrant sets up the final conflict very well with Patrick Kilpatrick exerting the sort of menace that all of the great action movie bad guys need to be memorable and JCVD playing the hero as only he can, with little dialogue and a lot of brooding. But while Kilpatrick and JCVD are on top form the script gives them very little to do as the action scenes are as short and clipped as Van Damme’s lines, the final fight itself being a little disappointing and oddly directed, as if this was the pre-edit cut and nobody thought to make it a little more exciting or make it so The Sandman doesn’t stand in front of that open furnace for a beat longer than any regular person would. The actors themselves are impressive to watch, as you would expect, but there is a distinct lack of energy to the movement of the camera and the timing just feels off. There is also the sense that The Sandman is more than just a psychopath and possibly something more supernatural but this is never expanded on, and you get the feeling that there is a backstory there that could have fleshed out the plot a little more.
But despite the movie’s shortcomings, Death Warrant still features JCVD in peak form and all the usual traits that actions movies from the era thrived on, namely clearly defined good guys and bad guys, some brutal kills and the sadistic prison guard, in this case played by the brilliant Art LaFleur, a man with the coldest stare in film. His introductory scene where he meets the new inmates and breaks open a handful of nuts with his nightstick is one of the film’s highlights and sets DeGraff up as the archetypal prison hardman, making the few scenes he is in some of the best in the movie.
Overall, Death Warrant is a good film but when stacked up against JCVD’s other output of the period – Bloodsport, Kickboxer, A.W.O.L., Universal Soldier, etc. – then it does fall short. Sylvester Stallone’s prison movie Lock Up was released just before this and managed to get the balance right when it came to action, violence, drama and characters, and although there are worse prison movies out there Death Warrant feels like it could have been a whole lot more when you consider the talent involved in making it. It is entertaining enough and flies by fairly quickly but it is also quite forgettable and ultimately unsatisfying, especially when compared to the standards set by the aforementioned JCVD movies.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★