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  In Hell Van Damage
Year: 2003
Director: Ringo Lam
Stars: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lawrence Taylor, Lloyd Battista, Carlos Gómez, Manol Manolov, Chris Moir, Billy Rieck, Kaloian Vodenicharov, Alan Davidson, Veselin Kalanovski, Ivo Tonchev, Juan Fernández, Raicho Vasilev, Milos Milicevic, Michael Bailey Smith
Genre: Drama, Action, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Kyle LeBlanc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is working in Russia, making enough money to afford to move to Louisiana with his wife (Marnie Alton) who pines for life back home in the States. But one night as he is driving back to their house, he calls her up and is having a conversation with her when suddenly she sounds panicked. What Kyle doesn't see is that she has been attacked at knifepoint: her would-be rapist manages to murder her in the process, and Kyle returns just in time to watch him try to escape. He gives chase and they have a struggle on a passing bus, but Kyle is caught by the cops who do not realise what he is doing; the resulting court case sees the killer freed on a technicality. And gunned down by Kyle in the courtroom.

That can only mean one thing, it's time for Van Damme to go back to prison, in an acting capacity, naturally, in a film that his fans consider one of his most realistic action movies, with a performance and fighting style dialled down from the over the top roundhouse kicks-fest the star would normally get involved with, some directed by Ringo Lam as here. Like many of his later efforts, it didn't receive the wide cinema release that he had enjoyed during his heyday, so while some territories could go out to watch it of an evening, many more stayed in to do so, it being a straight to DVD work there. However, the tone may have been thoroughly downbeat, but to call this a genuinely serious film appeared to gloss over the lunacies herein.

Kyle is sent off to prison, and worse than that, a Russian prison (actually the production was located in Bulgaria) which can only mean one thing: brutality and lots of it. Not that many countries have jails that are a walk in the park for their inmates, no matter what the "flogging's too good for them" brigade might tell you, but by setting the drama where they did it was effectively shorthand for misery, degradation and a crushing of the human spirit, all so unfair when our hero was wrestling with the grief of his wife's fate. This was of course a method of both locking Kyle up there and making us think, hey, he didn't deserve that, the killer was a total scumbag who made no attempt to hide his gloating, so already we seem to be on the side of the prisoners against the authorities.

Nothing unique there in the genre of prison movies, but In Hell, with its no messing about title, was not going to play this entirely sensibly. Certainly it underlined the nastiness that befalls the inmates with a rape in the first ten minutes (not visited upon Van Damme's character, though) and the main series of setpieces quickly established in that the governors run their own gladiatorial business where they invite their powerful pals over to watch the prisoners knock seven shades of shit out of one another, no rules, just violence, and all for the sake of the authorities running a betting circle at their expense. Initially, Kyle is not involved, as he is in solitary confinement: well, not entirely solitary because he does have a couple of allies there to keep him sane.

So after a failed suicide attempt, he is at the end of his tether when what should arrive in the cell but Jiminy Cricket? No, it's not him, it's, er, Jiminy moth, except the insect appears to be the reincarnation of his wife who tells him through the medium of moth mime that he should keep eating and carry on with life, because there is light at the end of the tunnel no matter how dark these days are. That's quite some mime for a moth, and as if that were not absurd enough later on when Kyle has been beaten up for the umpteenth time and is in the prison hospital, his wife appears to him as, no, not as a bluebottle but as a ghost to give him the pep talk he needs as she positively glows with benevolence. The combat was the big selling point, as instead of the flashy fighting we were used to from Van Damme, here there was more realistic brawling, which to be fair contributed well to the overall tension with Kyle's pal through the wall of his cell showing up after the communication medium of knocking comes up trumps. But this is a Russian jail where everyone speaks English, so... Music by Alexander Bubenheim.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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