Tonight Canadian police detective Louis Burke (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is tracking a serial killer known only as The Sandman (Patrick Kilpatrick) to a rundown area of the city, and after knocking out a couple of punks who give him a spot of grief, he ventures into an abandoned house. Inside he finds the body of the murderer's latest victim - and the murderer himself, avowing that he cannot die so there is no point in shooting him. Burke fires nonetheless, and brings him down - but sixteen months later, he is assigned to go undercover in a prison. Wouldn't it be terrible if someone recognised him there?
If you've ever watched The Shawshank Redemption and thought, fine, but it would be better as a Jean-Claude Van Damme action thriller, then Death Warrant is the answer to that wish. The most famous Belgian since Jacques Brel or Plastic Bertrand was in his element as the cop from, no, not Brussels but Quebec (as usual, they had to explain that accent somehow) who has to find out who has been killing off various prisoners, not to mention the assistant warden, in a tough prison environment. What appears to be a novel serial killer plot is not what it seems, however.
This is one of the better Van Damme outings, if not one of the best, certainly of his earlier efforts. The storyline is a solid one with the jail setting ripe with opportunities for the star to act the tough guy, but with a sensitive side as well to impress the ladies. The main lady Burke is impressing here is the lawyer he is working with as she poses as his wife, but is actually his contact Amanda (Cynthia Gibb), so it's no surprise when it transpires that, what do you know, she's fallen for the big lug. Meanwhile, he must make friends inside and makes a start with veteran criminal Hawkins, played by Benson himself, Robert Guillaume.
If you're still making Shawshank allusions, then Guillaume is the equivalent of Morgan Freeman in this, and when it comes time for Burke to escape he is a big help. We are led to think that there might be a gang motive behind the killings, but our hero finds out that all the victims had no involvement in that area, so what could the motive possibly be? Did they know... too much? Or was there some other reason? In truth this well hidden and although screenwriter David S. Goyer (who would go on to script the more prestigious The Dark Knight) has borrowed it from a more famous seventies thriller, it fits very well.
Van Damme's musclebound body may be a deadly weapon, especially in films such as this, but here it has also been designed to take some heavy punishment, more than it gets the chance to dole out in fact. There's a strongly masochistic theme to Death Warrant that may appeal to drives that many of his fans may not wish to admit to, although others may be only too pleased to see. Therefore Burke is regularly beaten and even stripped naked at one point to be put into solitary (why do they do this to lead characters in prison movies? What are they supposed to do while they are there?), but he is man enough to endure all sorts of physical pain and shrug it off. Inevitably, the Sandman makes a return when he is transferred, and it all ends with a great big punch-up that strains credibility to fresh heights of lunacy. Which makes this all quite enjoyable for admirers of the form, both Monsieur Van Damme's and the action genre in general. Music by Gary Chang.