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Out of all the 'big name' Hong Kong director's that made the move to Hollywood, Ringo Lam has probably had the weakest releases since leaving his homeland. While his On Fire films among others will always hold a well-deserved spot in the upper echelon of HK action movies, his American productions have been, well, really bad. So it was a nice surprise when I sat down with this latest effort, once again starring Jean Claude Van Damme, to find that it didn't absolutely suck.
JCVD plays Kyle LeBlanc. An American who is imprisoned after shooting down the man who raped and murdered his wife while the two of them were stationed in Russia. Off he goes to a high security prison where he finds a whole lot of corruption and very few friendly faces.
After he's been there a while he finds that those in charge have been running fights between the inmates so that they can make money betting on them with their friends. LeBlanc soon snaps and finds himself locked up in solitary confinement where he begins to work out, and grow facial hair at a very rapid pace. When he's released back into the general population, he begins fighting in the matches that the brass has arranged. He becomes more animal than man as he fights his way to the top, even going so far as to rip out one of his opponents throats with his bare teeth.
After finding out the hard way that his behavior isn't going to do him any good or win him any favors and that all he's really doing is lining the pockets of the corrupt officials running the joint, he stops fighting only to be mad an example of by those in charge. When he's finally released though they're in for a surprise as LeBlanc is a lot smarter and a lot tougher than they really gave him credit for.
In Hell was released in Europe as The Savage which is a much more fitting title. Van Damme gives a decent performance in the lead role and is even convincing once or twice, especially during the more feral scenes in which his character is involved. It's not a perfect move though. A lot of what we see has been done before (I kept thinking of Jamaa Fanaka's Penitentiary films while I was watching it and waiting for Leon Isaac Kennedy to show up at any moment – sadly that didn't happen) and there are a couple of really bad scenes in it involving a poorly made CGI moth which at one point transforms into the ghost of his dead, but still quite foxy, wife. Also, the narration from Lawrence Taylor's character feels unnecessary as it doesn't start until two thirds of the way through the film and we really don't know enough about his character to particularly care about his philosophies on prison life and the penal system.
What the movie does do well though is deliver some great action scenes, some moderately impressive gore effects, and a nice, gritty, dirty atmosphere. You don't' really expect to see Jean Claude Van Damme laying bloodied and beaten next to a stream of human excrement. He usually plays the suave cool type. Here he really does let loose though and when he decides to fight, he truly does become quite savage and intimidating. If you're looking for a fast paced action movie that provides some decent cheap and fast entertainment, you can do a lot worse than this film. Just don't go in expecting Prison On Fire and you'll be ok.The DVD
Well, Columbia has provided a fullscreen version of the film as well as an anamorphic 1.85.1 version. Unfortunately, this presentation was a bit of a disappointment. It's quite watchable, you won't want to stab yourself in the eyes with dull pencils as you go through the film, but for such a new release there was quite a big of compression artifacting, edge enhancement and an unusual amount of grain. You'd think with this movie being so recent that this wouldn't be an issue, but it is and it is quite noticeable. I'd hoped for a pristine print but what we get here is simply serviceable and is nothing to write home about.Sound:
Viewers are given their choice of English, Spanish or French Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks or a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in English only. The 5.1 track is the way to go if you're equipped for it as it really opens up the soundscape here. Quite a few scenes really benefit from the channel separation that the mix offers and with no hiss, distortion or audible defects, it helps pull you into the movie. The only real complaint is that the dialogue, in one or two spots, is a bit too soft compared to the rest of the mix and could have been balanced a little better, but really, I'm nitpicking here.Extras:
The only extra that has been supplied on this DVD release is a featurette on the making of the film that runs about fifteen minutes. All the key players are interviewed on this piece, including Van Damme, who claims that this will be his greatest movie ever, while Ringo Lam is shown being his usual eccentric self on set. A commentary from Lam would have been a nice plus as he's an interesting guy and some more material from Jean Claude would have at least been amusing, but nope, there's nothing else here.Final Thoughts:
In Hell was a pleasant surprise. It's the best of Van Damme's recent offerings with some great fights scenes, a few nice moments of true tension, and some solid direction from Ringo Lam. The disc leaves a bit to be desired, but it's worth a look if you enjoy action and/or prison movies.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.