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Death Warrant (1990)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Robert Guillaume, Cynthia Gibb, Patrick Kilpatrick, Armin Shimerman

Written By: David S. Goyer Directed By: Deran Serafian

The Short Version

A last gasp from the Cannon production company after its demise.

Death Warrant is a much better film than you’re expecting.

It’s also David S. Goyer’s first Hollywood screenplay credit.

Van Damme delivers the backspin kicking goods… in prison.

Golden Age action fans should not overlook Death Warrant – it’s worth your time.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Bring a little art to your pizza and beer night.

Pairs Well With...


Check a Mountie’s fridge, and you’ve got a 50/50 shot at that being the beer you find there.  Easy drinking for classic action night.

“I’m the Sandman.  You can’t stop me.”

Even when they hail from the Golden Age of Action Movies, prison flicks rarely turn out to be the sort of thing that anyone’s going to get his or her hopes up for.  Death Warrant, however, proves to be an exception to the rule of locked-up mediocrity; indeed, one could easily call it one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s better films.

Our story begins one nice in Los Angeles, where we meet Louis Burke (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kickboxer) of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  What’s a Mountie doing in LA (aside from giving Van Damme an excuse to carry an accent), you ask?  It turns out that he’s tracked a serial killer called the Sandman (Patrick Kilpatrick, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) to the City of Angels, and he doesn’t want to leave the apprehension of his partner’s murderer to a bunch of gung ho Americans.  Burke finds his man in short order, and then pumps him full of bullets.  Chalk one up for the RCMP.

Flash forward sixteen months.  Burke is back in LA at the invitation of the local District Attorney.  It seems that there’s a serial killer on the loose in a local prison, and the DA needs someone to go inside who won’t be recognizable to any of the convicts.  Who could be more unknown than a curly haired guy from Quebec, right?  After some thought, Burke agrees to the scheme, but once he’s inside, things get out of hand pretty quickly, which only makes sense, since we wouldn’t have ourselves a movie otherwise, would we?

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Death Warrant presents an interesting case of “goodbye” meets “hello.”

Remember Cannon Films?  During the mid-80s, they were the kings of cheesy and sometimes truly awesome action, but the end of the decade brought hard times to the company, and an era ended when they went under.  Though released under the MGM banner, Death Warrant is actually one of the very last Cannon flicks made; the company breathed its last after the movie was in the can, and MGM picked it up.  The big studio lucked out: this may very well be the most polished of all of Van Damme’s Cannon titles, and is a damn fine looking film.

As for the hello side, does the name David S. Goyer ring any bells for you?  If you need a few hints, he co-wrote a little movie called Batman Begins, contributed to the stories of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, and he’s also got the screenplay for an upcoming juggernaut by the name of Man of Steel.  As it so happens, Death Warrant is his first Hollywood script credit.  Is it as tight as the stuff mentioned above?  Not quite – it’s way too predictable for that – but the quality does far exceed what one can generally expect from a low/mid-budget late 80s actioner, to the point where it’s very noticeable for anyone paying attention to what happens beyond the spin kicks.

How is this possible, given that the frame story is farfetched, straight-up formula stuff wherein everything is so easy to see coming that if you miss guessing at any major or midlevel plot point well in advance I can only assume you’re either drunk or don’t care?  The answer is that there’s more to a quality script than its plot and the basic building blocks thereof.  There’s also the matter of detail, and this is where Goyer’s future promise shines through.  Sure, the idea of a Quebec Mountie being asked to infiltrate an LA prison is ludicrous, but Goyer takes so much care with the small details of seeing the ridiculous idea through – getting cash to our hero, for one example – that it’s easy to take at face value and even accept as “well done” for the space of an hour and a half.  Yeah, the prison’s loaded with plenty of genre stereotypes – asshole warden, anyone? – but then there are characters like Priest (Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and his cadre of followers who step beyond the formula of their initial archetypes and become truly intriguing individuals.  Little things like this go a long way in an otherwise predictable actioner, and when set against a video shelf full of the film’s peers, take it to the next level up.

This attention to detail continues with the direction and the cinematography, which are far, far better than one would normally expect from a flick of this era, genre, and budget.  It seems almost unthinkable to call any prison flick that doesn’t involve Frank Darabont “beautifully filmed,” but that’s exactly what Death Warrant is.  The camera techniques used here wouldn’t be at all out of place in an art film, and rather than being simple breaks for the eye, the insert shots especially often come across as little bits of visual poetry.  Again, it’s the attention to detail that sets Death Warrant apart from its peers despite its formula frame.

Meanwhile, the cast does its part, as well.  Yeah, he’s a bit too cleaned up and affable to make for a convincing convict in for an armed robbery rap, but Jean-Claude Van Damme never the less makes sure to remind audiences why, for a few years, he was action’s most likable hero.  His acting flows with the script – it’s flat formula or a cut above depending on what scene he happens to be reading at the time – but he’s got it in spades where it counts, which is to say whenever he’s called upon to deliver a spinning kick or some other devastating move.  On the other side of the aisle, Patrick Kilpatrick may be playing a character who’s as stock as can be, but he does have the “creepy” dial turned up to “eleven,” and that definitely counts for something.

The oddball name that jumps out from the credits is that of Robert Guillaume – yeah, that’s right: the guy who played “Benson,” and now fills the role that would normally go to Louis Gossett, Jr.  I admit, I found this particular bit of casting to be rather jarring at first – and still do, really – but he does manage to make it work despite the mismatch.  Rounding out our hero’s support crew is Cynthia Gibb (Short Circuit 2) as the DA’s assistant, and what she does with her role is nothing short of astounding for a film of this type: she doesn’t phone it in.  Let’s face it, the part is a thankless role-filler, but Gibb ignores the fact that every line she reads is straight up formula and makes a real go at – gasp – turning her into a real character through the power of acting.  Is there an Oscar waiting for her for this?  Of course not, but again, pitting Death Warrant against its peers, just the fact that she’s putting in more than a token effort really helps to set this film apart.

And when one adds up all the details – surprise, surprise – what one ends up with is in fact a pretty good movie.  Is Death Warrant completely predictable?  Sure.  But when all of those involved make such an effort to dress it up so nicely, the faults are easy to sweep aside, and the cheese turns out to be quite tasty indeed.

Bottom line, Death Warrant is one of the truly pleasant surprises to come out of the Golden Age of Action Flicks, and you certainly won’t catch me saying that about too many prison movies to don’t involve sci fi or outer space.  Do you like Jean-Claude Van Damme, or are you perhaps curious to see where the guy who co-wrote Christopher Nolan’s Batman stories got his start?  Then go ahead and pick up Death Warrant.  It’s definitely worth your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2013

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