For a brief (very brief) moment in time, I was wanted by the authorities on drug charges. Okay, maybe that’s blowing it out of proportion just a bit. Either way, here’s what happened. I and some friends of mine went to Canada on a fishing trip. I had then and have now no interest in fishing or in being out in a cabin, but I did have a big interest in being able to drink legally (I was younger then; thank God for the moral turpitude of our neighbors to the North) and visit certain types of bars (the sort where there are more women dancing than men, usually). In order to maintain the façade of at least looking like a fisherman and in the unlikely event I wound up actually trying to catch a fish, I had borrowed my brother’s tackle box for the week.
Anyway, as we were coming back across the border into New York, the good border agents must have sensed some perfidy going on, and they asked that I pull my car over to be searched. No big deal. Imagine me and my passengers’ surprise when the police separated us into three rooms and began grilling us about what “junk” we had been “partying” with all week long. We pled ignorance (which was the truth). After prolonging our anxiety to the maximum, the authorities let us know that they had found drug paraphernalia in my tackle box, and that was why we were just moments away from body cavity searches and being thrown in the pokey (but maybe not necessarily in that order). It appears that there was a small syringe in the box for injecting worms with air to make them more visible and appetizing to animals with brains the size of a hair’s circumference (feels like the angling equivalent of anabolic steroids to me). After much begging, pleading, and borderline bawling, we were released on our own recognizance, sans needle. They don’t call me the Teflon Todd for nothing. The coppers will never catch me.
Kyle (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is an “American” working a construction site in Russia. One evening, his wife Grey (Marnie Alton) is attacked and murdered by Sergio (Michail Elenov) while Kyle is on the phone with her. Kyle gives chase, and eventually Sergio is captured. However, some (unseen) negligence on the part of the police allows Sergio to go free. Sergio taunts Kyle, and unable to live with the injustice, Kyle snatches a guard’s pistol and shoots his wife’s slayer to death. Kyle is subsequently shipped off to Kravavi Prison, where General Hruschov (Lloyd Battista) and subordinates like Tolik (Carlos Gòmez) run the place with an iron fist, even staging bare knuckle fights between inmates. Resisting the pressure to give in, Kyle is placed in a cell with 451 (Lawrence Taylor), a silent giant known for murdering his various cellmates. Will the “Muscles From Brussels” survive?
Ringo Lam’s In Hell is a Prison film which is a surprisingly mature work for its exploitative elements, and while it’s not The Shawshank Redemption, to be sure, it does deal with some of the same themes. It just deals with them through bloody, gladiatorial fights rather than through the more subtle protestations of one man and his interior struggle against the systematic subjugation of the human spirit. The central conceit of every film of this ilk (or at least the ones I’ve seen) is the death of hope. Even in prison, Kyle starts off close to normal, but when he is stripped upon entering the jail, he hides a photo of Grey in his underwear. He can give up his worldly possessions if he has to, but the things which link him to his one love (the photo and his wedding ring) are the things he resists conceding (he gets to keep one of the two). They are the chain binding him to the outside the world, to hope, even though his sentence is life without parole. There can be no legal exoneration for Kyle, since he actually committed the crime for which he was convicted. His spiritual redemption must be achieved by holding on to hope and passing that hope on to others.
This sense of hope ties directly into the humanity which the institution endeavors to destroy. There are regular fights in the prison yard, ostensibly for the various gangs to settle their disputes. But their actual purpose is to give the wardens of Kravavi and some other jail to make wagers and to amuse them and their families. Consequently, the prisoners must be treated as savages, brought down to the level of animals in order to fight blindly, believing that they do it for power and respect (which in some ways is true). Yet, if this were in fact solely the case, it could be argued that there is some merit to the combat. However, because the fights are staged for reasons other than the fights themselves, there is no honor to be gained, and it is humanity which is lost. Most significantly, this thematic conversation is embodied across four characters. Billy Cooper (Chris Moir) is young and unassuming. He is violated physically and sexually on multiple occasions. He cannot effectively fight back, but he refuses to give in mentally. Conversely, Boo (Milos Milicevic) is the result of the institution claiming total victory. He is a gargantuan monstrosity, both non-verbal and literally faceless. He exists solely to please his masters through the bloodletting he delivers unto them. 451 is a completely institutionalized man, but he has maintained his humanity, because he has the physical ability to withstand corporeal attacks and he has the mental ability to recognize the prison for what it is and to build a fortress inside his journals to sustain his humanness. Sure, he has to kill the occasional yardbird who violates his rules, but that’s because he understands what the violation of his personal laws will mean to his survival inside the walls.
Kyle needs to learn from all three of these characters, to become a gestalt of them and save himself. This requires both death and resurrection (figuratively, of course). Kyle must descend into the “Hell” in the basement of the prison and below the toilets (there is a river of effluent flowing through the solitary cell in which he finds himself). It is here that Kyle will try to commit suicide several times and fail. It is here that he will develop his body into the tool it must become to dominate the fights. It is here that he will form a simplistic, empathetic connection that will aid him later. Kyle’s old self may be dead, but his new self is still not what it needs to be either, because he has forgotten what that which kept him human. In order to overcome the prison and become a leader in a spiritual sense, it will be through self-sacrifice and passivity, not uppercuts and roundhouse kicks (sort of). It is this sort of subjugation of expectations which I would suggest In Hell a cut above what’s typical for the genre, and it manages to do this while satisfying as an Action film. This is a solid film on multiple levels, and its appeal should extend beyond Van Damme’s core fan base. Ergo, I have no problems with recommending this film to you. Enjoy.
MVT: Van Damme shows that he’s capable as an actor when he tries (and I would say he’s been proving this quite a lot of late). The fight scenes are surprisingly not focused on making him look glamorous, and that’s a hell of a risk for a performer who made his bones the way he did. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that this is Oscar caliber work, but Van Damme does manage to engage the viewer in the character’s journey, and to me, that’s what acting is.
Make Or Break: The Make is the training montage around the midpoint of the film. It not only shows Kyle getting himself in fighting shape, but it also crosscuts with more of Billy’s story as a contrast in approach. These two men are resisting with what they have (or think they have), and the sequence is a nice summation of the film’s conflicts through largely visual methods.