One look at the DVD cover might lead you to think that In Hell is yet another run-of-the-mill DTV action movie starring a past-his-prime action star. The cover features Jean-Claude van Damme looking serious, there’s an exploding building and helicopters are circling over it. Quite the promise, a promise it doesn’t keep: there are no helicopters and no buildings are blown up in this movie. In fact: this might be the most serious movie Van Damme did up until then.
Van Damme plays Kyle LeBlanc, some sort of international contractor who’s working on a job in Russia. When his wife is raped and murdered by someone with enough money to bribe a judge he takes matter in his own hands. An impulsive choice that results in him getting a life in prison sentence. In this prison the warden stages fights between the inmates and the suicidal Kyle finds himself between two gangs, as well as a lethal cell mate and solitary confinement.
Now the mere mentioning of prison fights might make you think this is a true Van Damme movie, but the fights are just a side part of the movie. In Hell focuses more on Kyle’s psyche than on his muscles. This is Van Damme’s most muted role, a role in which the actor Van Damme comes first, action star Van Damme second. I remember being pleasantly surprised by this performance ten years ago upon release, and having watched it again I can only say that it’s still a good performance though he has gotten even better over the past few years. It was this movie that actually got me started telling people: did you know Van Damme can actually act?
Eventually Van Damme is put into the ring. The fights he partakes in are not your standard fight scenes. Van Damme plays a regular Joe who when in prison starts gaining some strength due to working out while in solitary confinement. He wins his first fight by clutching on to his opponent and biting his neck so fierce he hits an artery. Don’t expect any split kicks, every fight is raw, brutal and seemingly without any choreography.
Director Ringo Lam, who also directed Maximum Risk and Replicant, stages a gritty movie and uses CGI to create some interesting scenes like the slow-motion floating of a picture of Kyle’s wife and his interactions with a moth in solitary. Aside from a chase in the beginning of the movie and a prison break out there are no real big action scenes. It’s a surprisingly refreshing change of pace for a Van Damme movie.
In Hell is a more than decent entry in Van Damme’s filmography. Even though the marketing materials might give viewers the wrong expectations, they will probably be pleasantly surprised by the story.