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In Hell (2003)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

IN HELL (2003)

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lawrence Taylor, Lloyd Battista, Carlos Gomez, Manol Manolov

Written By: Eric James Virgets, Jorge Alvarez Directed By: Ringo Lam

The Short Version

Jean-Claude Van Damme does direct to video time in a corrupt Russian prison.

You’re not expecting an action movie, are you?

Van Damme proves that he’s got some chops as a dramatic actor…

…but he’s surrounded by a rather dreadful movie that’s not particularly fun to watch.

Established Van Damme fans may want to check out In Hell – it’s cheap enough – but otherwise?  Nah.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


You can’t tell what kind, because it’s so dark down here… so dark and alone…  What is this cheese?!  Why does this moth keep leading me to the cheese?!

Pairs Well With...


Welcome to Russian prison!  Drink to forget.

“You find that dark place deep inside: forget the world you come from, embrace the world you’re in.”

So, you’re scrolling through titles, perhaps lamenting the fact that all of the video stores that aren’t actually pawn shops or tiny sections of big box retailers have closed, and you spot a made-for-video flick starring Jean-Claude Van Damme called In Hell.  Perhaps it calls to you.  (What?  It can happen.)

Perhaps you go on to read the description and learn that it’s about an American named Kyle LeBlanc (Van Damme) working in Russia whose wife is attacked and, when she decides to resist being raped, brutally murdered.  The killer is acquitted, of course, so LeBlanc does the only reasonable thing he can think of and shoots the guy dead right there in the courtroom.  Unsurprisingly, LeBlanc is not acquitted, and is instead sent to a nasty Russian prison for the rest of his life.  Because, you know: Russia.

Then you read the part about how the evil warden runs an illicit fight club, pitting his prisoners against each other because he is, after all, evil. 

Like any reasonable Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, you put two and two together, figure that In Hell is a hard-punching and hard-kicking prison fight tournament flick; maybe a Bloodsport meets Death Warrant kind of thing.  Okay; cool.  And since it’s cheap – there is no way this’ll cost you any more than five bucks in any format – and you are, after all, a reasonable Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, you decide to go for it.

Aren’t you going to be in for a surprise!

Generally speaking, I’m all for artists taking chances and broadening their horizons, and that’s really what Jean-Claude Van Damme is doing with In Hell.  For his own part, he does a decent job of it, but as for the studio, they’re pulling a bit of a bait and switch. 

See, this isn’t really any sort of tournament fighting flick; personally, I question calling it an action movie at all.  When there is fighting to be seen, it’s rather poorly filmed brawl/wrestling stuff, like WWE in the dirt with a little punching tossed in, filmed by interns.  Forget high flying kickboxing maneuvers and spin kicks; for most of the movie, Van Damme’s character doesn’t even know how to fight.  Looking for epic splits?  The closest you get is when some burly Russian dude grabs our hero by the ankles and drags him to a pole for a wishbone slam right to the family jewels.  The fight club’s just a lure to reel the unsuspecting direct-to-video audience in; it is indeed, of all things, a plot device.

What sort of treachery is this, you ask?

While “treachery” may be too strong a term, what In Hell turns out to be is… well… a “triumph of the human spirit” drama.  One might even think of it as The Van Damme Redemption.

Go ahead and chew on that for a second.  I’ll wait.

Having trouble swallowing?  I understand.

Here’s how it’s supposed to play. 

Van Damme’s character of Kyle LeBlanc is just an average American professional – he looks to be an industrial manager/consultant of some sort – who likes taking short term international contracts because the money’s good.  When his wife is attacked and murdered, LeBlanc’s world is shattered.  When the killer is let off, the broken pieces crumble even further.  When the warden takes LeBlanc’s wedding ring, all light in his life is gone, and prison… well… you, get the idea.  LeBlanc ends up spending a lot of time in “the hole” that is Solitary Confinement, fails to hang himself, and then succumbs to the darkness and turns into an uncivilized monster who brawls just to brawl.  The fact that he gets his butt kicked is immaterial… though he does finally figure out how to win by way of biting a giant hole in his opponent’s neck and then screaming like a madman.

All the while, allegedly lofty voiceovers from former NFL player Lawrence Taylor (currently on probation, because, you know: America) play in the background, providing a sermon for LeBlanc’s pain.

But during his regular visits to “the hole” and later to the infirmary, LeBlanc keeps seeing a magical little moth which he comes to realize is the spirit of his dead wife –

No, I’m not kidding. 

– which first convinces him to eat the gruel left for him by the door, and eventually rematerializes as an actual ghost who says that if he continues to lose himself, she too will be lost, whereas if he can just find himself again, she, too, will be saved, for as long as he remembers himself and therefore remembers her…

Go ahead and drink something to wash down all of that sugar.  I’ll wait.

Anyway, I think you get the point.  Death Warrant meets Bloodsport it ain’t.

The thing is, Jean-Claude Van Damme himself does a perfectly fine job with the material he’s given in the setting within which he finds himself.  No, the goofy charm charisma isn’t there – there’s no place for fun of any kind in this flick; after all, it is called In Hell – but he handles the drama well, and proves to any doubters who are sincerely watching that he does indeed have some chops as an actor.  Taking chances and broadening horizons: mission accomplished.

Alas, there’s more to In Hell than just Jean-Claude Van Damme, and that more is not particularly good.  Those who pressed “play” expecting a more standard action movie might even be inclined to say that it sucks, and I’d have a hard time blaming them.

Let’s be honest: this is a movie that absolutely does not lend itself to being considered “entertaining.”  In Hell presents a story that can only be supported one of two ways: by outstanding characters and grand thespian efforts all around (a-la The Shawshank Redemption, which, for the record, I don’t personally enjoy, but I understand why others do), or by distracting the audience with the fighting action that the descriptions of this flick promise and other movies deliver.  You already know that the fights are wash; I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that the characters are mostly cardboard cutouts propped up by less-than-stellar performances.  Young pretty boy who gets hired out by the warden to be the prison bitch; check.  Schmoe in a wheelchair who’s a stooge for the bad guys “because he has to survive;” check.  Mentally disturbed hulk of a man whom the warden uses as his ultimate killing machine even though under that awful mask, the guy really just wants to be loved; check.  And then, of course, there’s the “wise man” – Lawrence Taylor’s character of 451 (he sets people on fire; get it?), who is especially annoying.  Stunt casting?  Oh yes; this was stunt casting.

You notice how many clear cut Americans are in this allegedly Russian prison, by the way?  But only the guy with the Belgian accent is ever referred to as “hey, American.”  Because, you know: cheap flick.

Meanwhile, director Ringo Lam presents this whole debacle in a strange operatic acid trip style that flushes just about anything that the already sketchy story had left straight down the sewer pipe.  Tack on a bizarre soundtrack the flips from standard “Mindless Direct To Video Score #3” to Opera to East Euro Club Pop, toss in about a thousand too many flashbacks emphasizing the same point over and over again (yes he loved his wife we get it oh crap not again), and finish it off with every single prison cliché you can possibly think of…  Yeah, In Hell is overdone like burnt meatloaf.

Bottom line, Van Damme sure picked a lousy movie to experiment with.  Tried-and-true fans of “the Muscles from Brussels” might be able to find something worthwhile here, but for anyone else?  Just keep scrolling on to the next title, perhaps lamenting the fact that all of the video stores that aren’t actually pawn shops or tiny sections of big box retailers have closed.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014

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