Death Warrant (1990): Bruisers & Bogeymen in the Big House

Matty goes behind bars with a quick appraisal of JCVD’s classic biff-’em-up.

David S. Goyer’s first produced screenplay, DEATH WARRANT stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as a monosyllabic Canadian (!) cop who’s sent undercover to a tough California prison to find out who’s killing the inmates. Naturally, the answer involves JCVD kicking the living shit out of cons and screws alike as Goyer ticks all the requisite B-movie boxes plot-wise, his deliciously pulpy tale of life behind bars sexed up with an organ snatching subplot and a procession of quirky characters.

Indeed, as far as casts go, Death Warrant is a veritable stew “hey, it’s that guy!” talent. Armin Shimerman and Joshua Miller appear as the slammer’s oily doctor and a teen hacker, respectively, and the late George Dickerson also features. Art LaFleur is on fine evil sumbitch form and nearly steals the show as the big house’s tyrannical warden, and Patrick Kilpatrick dominates as Van Damme’s hulking, terrifying nemesis, The Sandman.    

Excelling at and building a career from such roles (see Class of 1999 (1990), Scanner Cop II: Volkin’s Revenge (1995), and Parasomnia (2008) for similarly brilliant examples), Kilpatrick’s dead-eyed psycho is a borderline demonic presence – the actor even bellows “Welcome to Hell!” during Death Warrant’s rousing, boiler room-set finale as if to cement it. Relishing the character’s slasher trappings (in that respect, ol’ Sandy could easily sit alongside Shocker‘s (1989) Horace Pinker and House III‘s Max Jenke (1989) as one of the most underappreciated wackos of the period), Kilpatrick almost tips the film into full-blown horror territory; something Deran Sarafian embellishes with his boisterous, genre-laced direction.

Exceptionally well made, in Death Warrant, Sarafian demonstrates a hard-boiled yet often elegant touch that deftly expands upon the bursts of macabre flamboyance that peppered his earlier, sadly forgotten vampire gem, To Die For (1988). The scene in which a snitch is burnt, for instance, exudes a giallo-like flavour, while a swoop through the Bedouin tent layout of the prison’s pimp’s lair hint at Sarafian’s unfulfilled evolution. He’s a fine stylist, and his subsequent slide into episodic television after this and the impressive Back in the USSR (1992), Gunmen (1993), Terminal Velocity (1994), and a pair of distinguished made-for-cable flicks (Road Rage (1999) and Trapped (2001)) is nuts.

USA ● 1990 ● Action, Thriller ● 89mins

Jean-Claude Van Damme, Patrick Kilpatrick, Cynthia Gibb, Art LaFleur Dir. Deran Sarafian Wri. David S. Goyer

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