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The Canadian policeman Louis Burke is assigned in a jail to investigate in some murders of prisoners and jailors
For more about Death Warrant and the Death Warrant Blu-ray release, see Death Warrant Blu-ray Review published by Brian Orndorf on October 10, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Director: Deran Sarafian
Writer: David S. Goyer
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Robert Guillaume, Cynthia Gibb, Art LaFleur, Patrick Kilpatrick, Al Leong
» See full cast & crew
Death Warrant Blu-ray Review
If Van Damme wants the top bunk, give him the top bunk.
Reviewed by Brian Orndorf, October 10, 2012
Excluding his recent work as the demented, Satan-worshiping villain in last summer's blockbuster, "The Expendables 2," the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme has suffered from an extensive period of stagnancy and, frankly, stupidity. 1990's "Death Warrant" is a dramatic reminder of the bruiser's rise to screen glory, starring in a kooky B-list prison picture that attempts to merge the subgenre's propensity for violence and community intimidation with a mystery of modest means, permitting the martial artist an opportunity to branch out as an actor, playing traditional fist-first beats while working on his range of reactions to uncovered clues. For this type of entertainment, "Death Warrant" is actually quite engaging, with an amusing supporting cast of the trained and the terrible. Nevertheless, the glue here is Van Damme, offering his pronounced concentration and his kick-happy athleticism to what might've been a dreary viewing experience, bringing a funky foreign energy to a movie that's in need of all the oddity it can get its hands on.
Canadian cop Burke (Jean-Claude Van Damme) has built a reputation for himself as a hard-charging detective who always gets his man, recently bringing down notorious serial killer The Sandman (Patrick Kilpatrick). When his efforts are recognized by an L.A. task force committed to uncovering a series of mysterious deaths inside Harrison State Prison, Burke is asked to infiltrate the hellhole, posing as an inmate recently captured for armed robbery. With attorney Amanda (Cynthia Gibb) as his only lifeline to the outside world, Burke enters the penitentiary, hoping to dig right into the case while maneuvering around numerous inmates who view him as fresh meat. Learning the racial lines of the prison, Burke comes to rely on Hawkins (Robert Guillaume) for help, using the older man's knowledge of Harrison's politics and danger zones to wrangle access to files and witnesses who might be able to ease the investigation. With sadistic guard DeGraff (Art LaFleur) keeping a close watch on Burke's activities, the detective manages to uncover critical information detailing the true nature of the Harrison inmate murders. However, before he can make his case, Burke is confronted with an old enemy, singled out for revenge while Amanda processes the evidence, coming to her own realizations of corruption.
"Death Warrant" was written by a young David S. Goyer, working on his first produced screenplay. Goyer's soldiered on to a few highlights ("Batman Begins") and numerous lowlights ("Blade: Trinity," "The Unborn"), yet "Death Warrant" represents a purity of intent he's never been able to match. Working out his genre impulses, Goyer endeavors to create a prison picture with a little something extra in the motivation department, wading through penitentiary tropes while goosing the material with a slightly macabre squeeze. It's not exemplary writing by any means, but for a low-wattage actioner with whodunit inclinations, the movie finds its footing with relative repose, following Burke into dangerous situations that demand quick thinking, a taut survival instinct, and, in some cases, a beautifully executed roundhouse kick.
Goyer provides the basics with minimal fuss, sketching out corrupt guards, eccentric gang leaders, inmate assassins, and cellmate interactions, working to provide a sense of community to the location that encourages the comfort of formula. There's also outside activity with Amanda, who takes to computer hacking to decode Burke's findings, hiring a prototypical nerd (played by Joshua John Miller) to bang away on a keyboard while hitting on his boss and fretting about missing "Star Trek." Goyer ultimately bends to the torture of cliché by making Amanda something of a love interest for Burke, with the two barely partners before the faux inmate is making lustful moves on this relative stranger, with a mid-movie encounter inside a conjugal visit trailer awkward to watch, surely ordered up by executives worried about the feature's limited sex appeal. It doesn't help to see Gibb clearly unnerved by the pairing, visibly uncomfortable as the Muscles from Brussels vigorously paws her. "Death Warrant" is most assured deep inside the steel jungle, watching Burke deal with approaching aggressions and baffling file searches, while ingratiating himself to the locals. Women just get in the way.
Also bringing flavor to "Death Warrant" is director Deran Sarafian ("Terminal Velocity"), who manages to open up the claustrophobic location with a fluid sense of camera movement and lighting changes. The film looks sharp for a low-budget actioner, giving Van Damme a playground of brutes to bloody and catwalks to navigate, while the helmer pays close attention to pacing needs, never leaving "Death Warrant" to linger long, thus destroying the tenuous grasp on tension it's achieved. Violence is also a top priority for the picture, with various showdown scenes supplied to keep fans invested in the story, while allowing the star an opportunity to display the goods, pummeling the dim bastards who dare to confront him. Choreography is a little on the stiff side, but the beatings are entertaining to watch, using prison locations such the laundry and the boiler room to their fullest potential.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of "Death Warrant" is how it basically disposes of its plot when the climax arrives. There's all this work to drill down to the reason behind the prison murders, requiring scenes of elaborate infiltration and the establishment of trust between cons, and it's all tossed aside in the finale to make room for a rematch between Burke and Sandman, set in the bowels of the penitentiary. Sarafian doesn't completely burn off the mystery, but it's enough of a tonal adjustment to question, with Burke's primary reason for entering Harrison downplayed for a final boss fight. Granted, it's a diverting showdown between Canadian might and evil incarnate, but it's a thick-skulled ending to a picture that feels like it was aiming to try something different.
Death Warrant Blu-ray, Video Quality
The AVC image (1.85:1 aspect ratio) presentation looks surprisingly fresh for catalog title of limited appeal. There's a satisfactory presence of grain here to lend the viewing experience a pleasing cinematic touch, while fine detail is generally acceptable, with close-ups particularly impressive, permitting a full read of bodily injury and make-up work (Hawkins's milky eye is on full view). Prison particulars and key shots built around distant reflections are also accessible, while textures on costumes are available. Colors are strong and stable with minimal fade. The cinematography's insistence on blue lighting cuts through scenes with full intent, and bloodshed also retains a sharp red pop, while inmate uniforms provide compelling hues. Skintones are passable. There's little overt crush to cause concern, with most blacks healthy and unobtrusive. Print is in fine shape, with no overt damage.
Death Warrant Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound mix seems a little puny for a picture like "Death Warrant," missing a strong sense of low-end urgency and circular prison developments. What's here is adequate, with dialogue exchanges always crisp and understood, while group encounters are also modestly defined and easy to follow. Scoring is thin and occasionally shrill, yet rarely intrudes on the action, keeping supportive with a few dramatic flare ups. Distortion isn't an issue. There's not much oomph to the track, carrying a frontal force that's satisfactory but seldom memorable.
Death Warrant Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Death Warrant Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
While the climax offers more of a simplistic slap than a blast of reveals, "Death Warrant" remains an engaging picture and one of the highlights of Van Damme's rocky career. He's fun to watch and fully alert, enjoying his time with prison movie clichés, delivering exactly what his fans demand. At the very least, it's hard to dislike a movie that offers the line, "Listen, Burke, this is L.A., not Canada. We have procedures here."
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Death Warrant Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Three Jean-Claude Van Damme Films Heading to Blu-ray - July 28, 2012
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment have revealed that they are planning to bring to Blu-ray three action films starring Jean-Claude Van Damme: Albert Pyun's Cyborg (1989), Deran Sarafian's Death Warrant (1990), and Sheldon Lettich's Double Impact (1991). The preliminary ...
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