There were a lot of prison themed action flicks in the late 80's and early 90’s (Lock Up, Tango and Cash, etc.). This is one of them.
Jean Claude Van Damme stars as a kickboxing Mountie who in the great opening scene puts away the sadistic serial killer, “The Sandman” (Patrick Kilpatrick) by shooting him six times in the chest, then saying, “You’re under arrest!” Afterwards Van Damme is assigned to go undercover in a scummy prison where a lot of the inmates are winding up dead. His boss tells him, “You’ll be imprisoned for armed robbery; a respectable crime among inmates. Implicitly violent. They respect violence.”
So JCVD goes to prison, doesn’t pass Go, doesn’t collect $200.
He’s not in jail 5 minutes and he’s already kung fuing Cholos in the Chow Line. He learns quickly that in prison you don’t fraternize with prisoners not of your own skin tone, so he tries to keep a low profile. Pretty soon, he’s looking for clues to find out why all of the inmates end up with ice picks in their skulls, but still takes time out to beat the snot out of the occasional punk with a mop in the laundry room. JC eventually learns that the deceased prisoner’s bodies are being harvested for their organs and sold on the black market.
Unfortunately for Van Damme, The Sandman gets transferred to the prison and he immediately comes gunning for him. The Sandman also exposes Van Damme’s identity to the rest of the prisoners, which doesn’t exactly make him the most popular person in General Population. All of this leads up to an impressive five minute free-for-all kung fu finale as Van Damme trades blows with The Sandman while all the prisoners cheer them on. (“Time to bleed!”)
The blow by blow: Van Damme gets a wrench to the face; Sandman gets a bandsaw to the cranium. Van Damme gets cut with glass; Sandman gets kung fued. Van Damme kicks Sandman into an open furnace; Sandman comes back burnt to a crisp ready to fight. (Special Note: Van Damme’s “Oh shit” face is priceless in this scene.) Van Damme finally kickboxes the back of Sandman’s skull into a fire plug, but the fucker refuses to DIE so Van Damme has to grab his head and push that thing DEEPER into his cerebellum so the movie can at last be over.
The plot slows down considerably whenever it switches to Van Damme’s partner (Cynthia Gibb) and a horny computer nerd (Joshua Miller from Near Dark) trying to hack into the prison’s computer, but whenever JCVD is roundhousing scumbags in the face with his Belgian boots, it works. Death Warrant may not be quite in the same league as Kickboxer, but it features a harem full of transvestite prisoners, people being set on fire, boots to the nuts, and axes to the guts, so it’s got that going for it.
Van Damme is his usual self, saying about 75% of his dialogue intelligibly. His kung fu skills are adequately displayed here, although the overabundance of “plot” sometimes hampers their frequency. But easily the best thing about the movie is Kilpatrick as the sinister Sandman. If you enjoyed Kilpatrick’s memorably creepy work here, you should also check him out as the outstanding villain in The Substitute 4. Robert (Benson) Guillaume also co-stars as the helpful, spiritual black inmate. Honestly, if you liked Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, you’ll love Guillaume in this movie. Guillaume already played virtually the same role as Freeman did four years earlier, yet it was Freeman who got all the rave notices. Go figure.
Director Deran Serafian handles the action scenes well and does a decent job considering the claustrophobic setting. He later went on to direct the immortal Charlie Sheen actioner, Terminal Velocity. Screenwriter David S. Goyer also wrote the Blade movies. The Muscles from Brussels starred in Double Impact next.