You may remember, back when I reviewed Death Warrant, that I said putting an action star in a prison movie doesn't usually result in an actual prison movie. You instead get an action movie that happens to be set in a prison. Well, mainly because Van Damme's star had waned so much, In Hell is actually a prison movie.
Van Damme plays a man who is devastated when his wife is raped and murdered. He's even more devastated when the killer gets off with the crime. So devastated that he walks up to him in the middle of the court building and shoots him dead. This gets him put in prison, and it's an exceptionally tough prison that also has fights arranged between inmates for the entertainment of the warden.
Written by Eric James Virgets and Jorge Alvarez (the only script from either of them at this moment, although they've worked on some other movies in various departments), In Hell is a surprisingly solemn treatment of material that could have easily been turned into a fightfest. In fact, it's a bit too solemn at times, with the middle section bogged down by the plight of the main character and the thoughts that lead him towards the final act.
Director Ringo Lam keeps everything grounded in the dirt-caked reality of the situation, and even the fight scenes here are removed from the cinematic high-kicking and fancy work of past Van Damme movies. When action occurs here, it is borne of desperation. It's interesting to note that Lam made three movies with Van Damme and only managed to make the most of his star when placing him in material that wasn't trying to be too similar to everything that he'd already done.
JCVD is good in the lead role, actually giving a performance that doesn't count on him just smiling and then kicking people in the face. It's not among his very best but it's certainly up there. Elsewhere, Lawrence Taylor plays the kind of large, black inmate who imparts sparse words of wisdom like he's just wondered in from a Stephen King story, and Lloyd Batista is okay as the loathsome authority figure. Alan Davidson and Chris Moir both do okay as two other prisoners who affect our hero in different ways.
In Hell is a solid movie, and a surprisingly solid PRISON movie. It may lack the easier entertainment factor of Death Warrant but it does more than enough to make it worth your time. It's full of cliches, predictable moments, and a general lack of believability too, but that is often part of the package with these movies.
The DVD can be bought here.
Americans can buy it here.