If this movie had been made in the 1980s, it could have been a real banger. Action films in the ’80s had a reckless, cartoonish quality that was no longer chic by 2003, when In Hell was released. Things had to be gritty and miserable for the characters (thank you very much, David Fincher), and that, in turn, made things less fun for us, the moviegoing public. But, lest I heap all the blame on producers and studios, it was the moviegoing public that steered action in this direction, by sending streams of disposable income towards dark and desperate movies, and forcing Arnold Scwarzenegger into the theme restaurant business. Forgive us, Arnold!
Directed by Hong Kong auteur Ringo Lam, from a screenplay by Eric James Virgets and Jorge Alvarez, In Hell is a prison flick, and follows the unfortunate trials and tribulations of one Kyle LeBlanc (Jean-Claude Van Damme).
Kyle is a construction site manager who has taken a job in Russia. One evening his wife (Marnie Alton) is murdered during a home invasion. At this point, film vets will think they know where this is going, but they would be wrong. Experience would tell the viewer that Kyle is going to be imprisoned for the murder of his wife. Nine times out of ten, the viewer would be right. In this flick, the murderer is apprehended, but is set free after his family lays down bribes. Distraught, Kyle grabs a policeman’s pistol and kills his wife’s murderer right there in the courthouse. And that’s how Kyle ends up sentenced to life in a Russian prison.
As with all prison flicks, things fall into cliché immediately. All the familiar and cozy tropes are there. Fights, rapes, bad food, corrupt guards, that one guy that can get anything for a price, solitary confinement, loss of hope, regaining of purpose, redemption, riot. After a century of these movies, a prison flick holds little surprises, but if it were to deviate from the tropes too much, then it wouldn’t be a prison flick.
The added conceit to this prison is that the warden, General Hruschov, arranges fights in the yard among inmates that are a big draw for the area’s bettors. Not a new wrinkle in the prison flick oeuvre, but not something one sees all the time.
So, since there aren’t any surprises in this movie, it lives and dies on the execution of those well-worn tropes. In Hell would not be in Shitty Movie Sundays if it had done well, but it’s not a disaster. The largest flaws with the movie are in its storytelling.
There is a narrator in this movie, sometimes. He is a prisoner known only as ‘451,’ played by legendary NFL star Lawrence Taylor. Why he got the name and why he is in prison are explained late in the movie. The important thing is how weird his character is. At the start of the movie it appears the film will be told from his perspective. Then an entire act goes by before we see 451 again. Then it is only later when his narration resumes. Is he telling the story of this film or not? The presentation of his character is so flawed that the viewer never has to fret about whether or not he’s a reliable narrator. Nor is he a crutch by which Lam and company can lay exposition on the viewer, because he knows nothing about any character’s background. All he wants is to be left alone with his own rage. In the end, his character still has a place in the movie, and Lawrence was far more interesting as an actor than I expected, but so much of what he did was superfluous, in a movie that was already stretched to its breaking point.
By that, I mean that before this film’s climax, Lam stuffed as many prison set pieces as he could into this movie. Every bad thing that could happen to Kyle happens, more than one once. By my count, he got thrown in the hole three times. The only trope Kyle wasn’t subjected to was rape. Poor American tourist Billy (Chris Moir) was subjected to that. It must have been a contractual thing.
Everything in the movie leads to violence, which piles up and piles up until denouement, and then, there’s still twenty minutes of movie to go. No one seemed to know when enough was enough. The depressing tone of the movie means that all this stuff is something the viewer must endure, rather than enjoy. And that’s the difference between an ’80s action flick and one from 2003.
One can do worse than spending an evening with In Hell. Despite the storytelling rigmarole and all the bleakness, it makes the top half of the Watchability Index, displacing The Devil’s Rain at #212.