When it comes to prison exploitation movies where the hero is forced to fight to stay alive, slugging it out against other inmates in brutal gladiatorial matches, there are no better films that Jamaa Fanaka's classic Penitentiary trilogy. Between those three films, you pretty much get everything you could ever hope to have in a prison movie--and even things you didn't know you wanted in a prison movie--making the Penitentiary films the stick by which all others must be measured. In fact, Fanaka's films are so brilliant, and cover so much territory, everything that has followed in their wake seems like a rip-off. Undisputed and Undisputed 2? Total rip offs of Penitentiary. And while it may not be a total rip-off, director Ringo Lam's In Hell, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, really should have a special thanks to Fanaka in the credits, because nearly every great moment in this movie comes from his films.
Van Damme stars as Kyle, a loving husband living in Russia with his wife. The reason why Kyle and his wife are in Russia is pretty unimportant, it just makes a nice set up for when she is raped and murdered, and her killer gets off on a lack of evidence; which lead to Kyle going crazy and killing the man in front of the courthouse. This means he must go to prison in Russia, which sounds more menacing than going to prison in America or perhaps Bulgaria (which is where this was shot). Life in a Russian prison is pretty much what you would expect it to be, which is very much like a Canon Film from the 1980s--lots of big scary looking Slavic guys and a few Hispanic guys passing as Russians, all looking to cornhole the new inmates. As if anal rape in a prison where barely anyone speaks English is scary enough, the sadistic warden (Lloyd Battista) hosts bare-knuckle fight matches, in which inmates get to pummel each other to within an inch of their lives. After a few altercations with the guards and other inmates, Kyle is sent to solitary confinement, where he becomes lost within his own savage rage. When he comes out of solitary, Kyle is an animal who will fight anyone that crosses his path. But somehow, he miraculously realizes that he's more of a killing machine than a man, and Kyle vows to regain his humanity. Kyle's refusal to fight inspires the other prisoners, and earns the wrath of the warden, who decides to unleash Milos (Milos Milicevic), a hulking monstrosity that is kept locked up in solitary, and only brought out when the warden wants someone beaten to death.
There are times when In Hell seems confused about what sort of film it wants to be. At times it is a purely a prison exploitation flick, complete with every horrific cliché to be found in such movies, including the unsuspecting innocent prisoner who gets brutally sodomized, and the crazy cellmate that forces our hero to sleep with one eye open. But at other times, the film actually seems to be venturing into some artistic realm that examines the nature of existence, as one man first loses his humanity, and then fights to get it back. Sure, that's a common theme in most films of this nature, but In Hell tries to make it bit more arty farty than other entries into the genre. The result is not a complete failure--although it does become laughable at times when things get it a bit too earnest in the attempt to give this shallow epic a semblance of depth.
For what it is, In Hell isn't a bad movie. My biggest complaint with the movie is probably that the DVD packaging has a really stupid grammatical/spelling error, which is hardly a reason to hate a movie--even though it is ridiculous and overflowing with clichés. But all in all, In Hell is entertaining. Van Damme gives a solid performance that is better than much of his past work. Sure, this isn't on par with his work in JCVD--hand's down his finest moment as an actor--but he does manage to bring some range of emotion to the film. And while this isn't the revelatory or transcendent film that JCVD is, it is a cut above some of Van Damme's other movies.