Before watching Death Warrant I had thought that the plot, which is set in an L.A. County Prison, revolved around a warden-sponsored prisoner-cage-match tournament for some reason. I think that was just a mistake on my part as all the late-1980s Jean Claude Van Damme flicks revolve around him having to take part in an Enter The Dragon-styled tournament. However, Mark DiSalle, the producer of Bloodsport, decided that Van Damme needed to expand his range and so cast him as an undercover cop from Quebec who is to investigate a spate of prisoner deaths within the big house. Yes, Death Warrant is another entry into the reliable prison genre (Sylvester Stallone’s Lock Up and Tom Selleck’s An Innocent Man were both released the year before Death Warrant). Like Oz, there are segregated racial tribes on the inside, particularly since it’s an L.A. prison, there are lots of over-acting Chicano stereotypes who threaten stuff like “I’m gonna cut you, esse” before Van Damme fly-kicks them in the face. Like The Shawshank Redemption, there’s a gruff-but-kindly, older, black prisoner (played by Robert Gulliuame) who comes to help the white “new fish” and therefore be redeemed in turn (though unlike The Shawshank Redemption there’s a lot more high-kicks to the face). Thankfully as well the prison issued uniform includes short-sleeved denim shirts, which finish just above Van Damme’s rippling biceps, always shown flexing whenever he is high-kicking a sadistic guard or a sadistic prisoner in the face.
While the opening credits play out over an arty, abstract image of rippling drain water, Death Warrant soon orientates us into the pleasingly familiar cop movie with Van Damme standing outside an abandoned building ready to capture the serial killer known as the Sandman. This is the first exchange in the movie with Van Damme talking to his superiors on a pay-phone:
Cop Over Despatch: “Burke! Wait for back-up!”
Burke (Van Damme): “No! He killed my partner.”
Burke (Van Damme): “No! He killed my partner.”
But before he can even enter the premises in his lone-wolf manoeuvre, three Latino gangster surround him to which he spin-kicks them into submissions. With his trusty 38 revolver, Van Damme then proceeds to stalk through dimly lit interiors before coming face to face with the Sandman who we know is creepy because the actor playing him, Patrick Kilpatrick, has wisely shaved off his eyebrows for the part. “I can never die... because I’m the Sandman,” he says. Van Damme blasts him six times in the chest and then adds, “You’re under arrest.” Classic stuff. This is then capped off with Van Damme walking through the L.A. police department high-fiving cops while up-tempo music that sounds suspiciously like the theme to The Cosby Show blares over the soundtrack. Then Van Damme has a meeting with the bureaucrats who sit in boardrooms in suits worrying over how the killings within this prison will affect the upcoming election. They want to send him in undercover as a prisoner to find out what the hell is going on with all these prisoners being spiked in the back of their heads while they're asleep and so the authorities give Van Damme a cute lawyer played by Cynthia Gibb as his contact (she will pose as his wife and will naturally fall in love with Van Damme’s smouldering presence).
Van Damme hits the prison yard and there is the usual bunch of agreeable clichés. His cell-mate threatens him initially: “Get down on your hands and knees and you pay like any other cherry.” Van Damme slams him against the wall and replies, “I don’t pay... I don’t punk.” And then after that exchange they kind of become friends. Well, that’s the spirit of fraternal brotherhood that prison creates in men. Van Damme’s investigation begins properly as he negotiates the racial borders set up within prison: the black guys all hang together listening to late-1980s non-descript rap, smoke joints and have posters of Malcom X on their cell walls while the Aryan brotherhood types have weird 1980s Mohawks that have the names of people they killed tattooed on the side of their skulls (“That’s very special,” Van Damme glibly offers). Death Warrant is the type of B-movie where not a scene can be wasted in the 85 minute running time, so when you have an odd moment that seems out of place then you can correctly assume that it is a clue to the mystery. Such as when the creepy prison doctor (played by the evil principal from Buffy) notes that Van Damme as AB blood, which is “rare”, and then the wife to one of Cynthia Gibb’s superiors, a kindly father-figure type, mentions her medical treatment, and you can ascertain that prisoners are being used as organ farm for the medical black market. But if you’re too thick to cotton onto this, don’t worry, you have the helpful father-figure bureaucrat who turns out to be the evil boss holding a gun on Cynthia Gibb and performing the time honoured tradition of the Talking Killer cliché where he explains his reasons while a swanky party goes outside his house.
Van Damme’s time on the inside is made even difficult when the corrupt officials send transfer The Sandman into the prison, blowing Van Damme’s cover and making sure that this mission leads to a showdown. And this time it’s personal. Particularly when the sick freak is tying Van Damme up to the prison showers and cutting him slightly with a blade in a torture scene heavy with allusions to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion (or Mel Gibson’s torture scene in Lethal Weapon 1). This leads to a great climax that gives us a showdown in the steel-girders and steam-pipes section of the prison where The Sandman beats on Van Damme for about twenty minutes, proving his credentials as a bruised and battered hero, before Van Damme regroups and proceeds to kick the ever loving shit out of The Sandman with an avalanche of high-kicks. He then kills the villain twice, once by kicking him into the furnace he was stupidly standing in front of, and then secondly when he jumps out of the flames in surprise, kicking the back of his head into an exposed screw.
Now what else is there to recommend about Death Warrant? You have the explanation that Van Damme’s character is a Royal Canadian Mounted Police so as to explain his slurred Belgian accent; you have an evil prison guard who uses the “n” word a bunch of times, but not to worry, he’s shot-gunned by an African-American in the climax so it all balances out; you have grisly prison deaths like a kook who helps Van Damme being drenched with gasoline and burnt alive in his cell for being a snitch; you have Al Leong, the Asian stuntman of the 1980s (you might recognise him from Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and as Ghengis Khan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) attacking Van Damme with some chains to which Van Damme throws his head through a tumble dry and then turns the thing on; you have your boudoir of transvestite prisoners whose section has a lot of silk drapery; you have Van Damme naked and chained in a solitary cell at one point satisfying his one nude scene clause in his contract; you have a scene where Cynthia Gibb is felt up by sleazy prison guards who search her leeringly before she visits Van Damme in the conjugal trailer; you have a nerdy computer hacker teenager who helps Cynthia Gibb hack into some files while saying hacker stuff like “I’m a computer cowboy” and “you want to watch Star Trek?”; and then finally you have this classic line of prison-movie dialogue, “You’ve gotta cover your ass around here... and I mean literally cover your ass!”
In the end, a solid B-movie vehicle for Van Damme. Disappointingly, however, there are no scenes where Van Damme relies on doing the splits, no problem, in order to escape out of a tight situation.