At this point in time, I’m not going against the grain by suggesting that of the action stars who came to prominence in the 80’s, Jean-Claude Van Damme is the best actor. He’s been having something of a renaissance lately, what with several high profile commercials that cash in on his action movie past (and are hilarious) and five or so films that finally seem to know what do with the Muscles from Brussels other than have him punch/kick people whilst jumping through the air (though there’s that too). But let’s look at a film that came before the current wave of appreciation, 2003’s In Hell, directed by Ringo Lam. Here are two reasons to watch In Hell.
1. Van Damme gets beat.
Van Damme has the physique of a god but the face of a sad clown, one that uncannily resembles Buster Keaton. The similarities in their facial features are astounding, but it’s more than just a physical resemblance. Keaton’s persona was that of an outsider, and his perpetual basset hound expression gave his humor just the slightest tinge of melancholy. We identify with him because we all like to think of ourselves as outsiders, put upon by the world and resourceful enough to deal with it creatively and effectively. Even when Keaton succeeds in whatever task or stunt he’s attempting it doesn’t register, aside from maybe the slightest hint of strain. Success is hard work that really isn’t all that satisfying, and it often means falling off a cliff a few times or breaking your back and going right back to work.
If an action movie is a catalogue of our hero winning fights, then it would be wrong to call In Hell an action movie. The film I kept thinking of was Cool Hand Luke. Our hero is beaten, put in the hole, beaten, put in the hole, beaten, etc. It’s not until about half way in that he “wins” in any conventional sense, and that winning isn’t followed by his physical triumph over his adversaries. No victory is emblematic of any larger victory, or of anything outside the moment, and even that is ruined by the knowledge that winning only means he will have to fight again.
Through all this, we see Van Damme take an enormous amount of punishment and every bit of it registers in those sunken eyes. We rarely see this kind of acting, this kind of role, outside of Oscar-bait style movies, and then it’s from “prestige actors” trying to demonstrate range. But this isn’t that kind of movie, and Van Damme isn’t that kind of actor. This is essentially a B-movie and he’s a B-movie action star. (I mean no disrespect by using the term “B-movie.”) But through his performance, and an above-average script for an English-language outing from a Hong Kong director, the result is a shorter, less pretentious The Shawshank Redemption.
But really I think the Cool Hand Luke comparison is the best one because this is a movie about a man who realizes that he is not as strong as his oppressors, but pushes against them regardless. Keep in mind, this isn’t a movie about an innocent man who has been sent to jail. Van Damme is clearly guilty, even if that crime was somewhat understandable, and he doesn’t cry about injustice. He doesn’t even try to escape until it comes down to a life or death decision. I think it would be interesting to watch In Hell as an informal sequel to the movies he made in the mid to late 90’s, as if the trigger happy hero of those films is being forced to atone. That’s not too much of a stretch – as the film begins Van Damme is playing completely with type, as some sort of bodyguard/secret service stationed away from his home whose wife is assaulted and murdered. The opening chase could be straight from any of his other movies. When he takes justice into his own hands, which in lesser films is a virtue, he is punished accordingly.
I’m not suggesting that this is the greatest or most psychologically complex prison movie ever, but it will significantly raise your expectations for what Van Damme is capable of as an actor.
2. Van Damme beats.
And of course Van Damme has always been more than capable when it comes to fighting, but a lot of his late-90’s work, and a lot of his recent work, labors under the mistaken belief that having an action star and having quality (or even competent) action are the same thing. Look, I’m willing to overlook some pretty dire scripts if the action is sublime. There is no other way to explain my love of A Better Tomorrow 2. I once bought this DVD called Kwoon, whose tagline was “It’s like porno, but with kung fu instead of sex.” That’s about as good an assessment of the Direct-to-DVD (and even sometimes Theatrical) action movie mindset that I’ve ever heard. If you make an “action movie,” you have one job – action. Fail that and you’ve wasted your, and my, time.
So believe me when I say that when the action happens in In Hell, it happens and it’s glorious. Ringo Lam ain’t no slouch – City on Fire is a legitimately great action movie, so it shouldn’t be surprising. But when Van Damme hooks up with a director that knows how to use his physicality and film it with clarity and electricity, the results are compelling. The fights all have a sense of weight, and thanks to the performances and the script there are some pretty solid stakes to them. It’s not an over-the-top movie by any means – don’t come in expecting John Woo or even John McTiernan. I’d honestly be hesitant to call this a true “action movie” because more time is spent on the spiritual and mental breakdown/growth of our hero. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – an action movie is best when I have someone to care about.
The fact that his first victory comes so late in the film, and that it isn’t just a warpath from that point, creates tension. At some point, it isn’t too hard to believe that Van Damme might not survive, or that he might be in that prison forever. And when the moment comes, where things start to turn and we finally see a glimmer of hope, it isn’t even a sure thing. We feel the work, the pain, the exhaustion, and the sense that this all might come crumbling down in a matter of moments. It feels real. Never thought you’d hear someone say that about a Van Damme movie, did you?