At the turn of the nineties, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s star was really on the rise. With the success of runaway hits “Bloodsport” (1988) and “Kickboxer” (1989), and to an extent “Cyborg” (1989), Van Damme had the onscreen presence and box office draw to turn modest budgets into blockbuster hauls.
“Death Warrant” sees Van Damme launch into the prison movie genre resulting in more box office success. With a solid enough story and especially with Van Damme in his pomp,“Death Warrant” had JCVD poised for a home run, but can we still say that 30 years on…?
Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer Louis Burke who is tasked with going undercover in a Californian prison and solving a string of inmate murders. Robert Guillaume takes on the role of Hawkins, a savvy prisoner whom Burke is luckily able to befriend.
Burke’s main contact and lifeline to the outside world is the young but highly capable attorney Amanda Beckett, played by Cynthia Gibb. Amanda works for and reports to Attorney General, Tom Vogler played by George Dickerson.
Burke’s cellmate, the wily Konefke is played by Conrad Dunn. Art LaFleur steps into the role of cruel head prison guard, Sergeant DeGraf. Unlikely ally, Priest, is portrayed Abdul Salaam El Razzac and Armin Shimerman takes on the part of the evil Dr. Gottesman. Al Leong also turns up as ‘Bruce’, who’s unsurprisingly, a henchman.
Last and by no means least, prolific character actor Patrick Kilpatrick plays Burke’s nemesis, the nightmarish serial killer Christian “The Sandman” Naylor.
Quebec RCMP officer Louis Burke, successfully tracks the almost supernatural serial killer known as ‘The Sandman’ to Los Angeles and, after a savage encounter, manages to capture and arrest his quarry.
Sixteen months later, Burke is asked by Los Angeles District Attorney Vogler, under the orders of the governor, to undertake a highly dangerous mission: to infiltrate Harrison State Prison in the guise of a prisoner and discover who is brutally killing inmates there.
Burke’s got the skills and is unknown in California so he’s the perfect choice. The big catch is nobody in the prison will know he is a policeman so he’ll be treated like any other prisoner.
Inside the hellish prison, Burke not only has to find the killer, he must do it while surviving sadistic guards and vicious inmates. On top of that, he also has to deal with mysterious conspiratorial forces at work against him from outside the prison. And if all that wasn’t enough, The Sandman returns with one desire: to make Burke’s life nothing but a living nightmare!
Unlike some of Van Damme’s previous films like “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer”, the movie is not built around a series of physical encounters (no problem if it was though!). Here, the plot takes precedence over the action for sizeable parts of the movie.
However, that’s not to say action fans will feel short-changed. There are still plenty of skirmishes on show for them to feel satisfied. And it’s all executed with Van Damme’s trademark athleticism and effortless agility so even short fight moments are a real treat.
The movie opens with Burke taking on The Sandman in Los Angeles. From the outset we can see that The Sandman is not a martial arts style antagonist like Chong Li in “Bloodsport” or Tong Po in “Kickboxer”. The Sandman is more akin to Michael Myers from the “Halloween” series or Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” movies. Burke manages to bring him down though but obviously, we know that’s not the last we’re going to see of him.
When Burke goes undercover in the prison, the expected conflicts are forthcoming. In one instance, Burke saves Hawkins from a sneak attack using a jumping spinning hook kick to nail the adversary. Even though fleeting, it’s still wonderful to see Van Damme unleash with his signature style and aerial ability.
Not long after, the attacker comes back for revenge, this time bringing a cohort, none other than cult hero and highly skilled martial arts actor, Al Leong. Even if the name is not familiar to you right off the bat, if you’re a martial arts movie fan, trust me you’ve seen him many, many times throughout the years.
Leong has a great look and is instantly recognisable with his long hair and moustache and he always makes for a great adversary. So it’s fun to see Van Damme square off against Leong who is no certainly slouch in the kicking department himself.
There are other minor clashes throughout the movie, usually involving Burke dispatching the villains with perfectly executed variations of front, side or back spinning kicks.
The main event of course was always going to be Burke taking on The Sandman again. Kilpatrick may not be a great martial artist like Van Damme but does well to come across as a cold-blooded psychopath with a menacing physical presence. He really chews up the scenery making the climax a heart-pounding, brutal David vs Goliath-type showdown which certainly delivers. Side note: “Death Warrant” also contains what must be the greatest flying wrench to the face scene ever filmed!, yep!
When this movie was written, it was not written as a martial arts showpiece nor written with Jean-Claude Van Damme in mind so at its core “Death Warrant” is not a full-on martial arts movie. It’s more of an action thriller with martial arts blended in. That makes it a bit of a departure from Van Damme’s previous movies which were jam-packed with martial arts confrontations.
“Death Warrant” is directed smoothly by Deran Sarafian, and has some nice visual touches, an intimidating antagonist and a lead character in Louis Burke that you’ll be rooting for to escape what seems like an impossible situation and an unstoppable villain, and of course Van Damme’s presence alone always brings the interest level of any movie up a notch or two.
“Death Warrant” may not be in his top tier of blockbuster movies like “Timecop” (1994), “Universal Soldier” (1992) or “Sudden Death” (1995) and warranted, (ahem) there’s a lesser volume of fights, however, if you like bubblegum action, you’ll appreciate the ‘Muscles from Brussels’ mixing his breed of action up with an engaging mystery-thriller story.
- “Death Warrant” was the second script David S. Goyer wrote and the first one he sold. It was originally titled “Dusted”. Goyer would go on to have a super successful Hollywood career, writing such blockbuster movies as the “Blade” trilogy starring Wesley Snipes and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy.
- Die Hard legend Bruce Willis, was also reportedly considered for the lead role of Louis Burke at one point.
- The Sandman actor Patrick Kilpatrick would reunite with Jean-Claude Van Damme in the movie “Black Water” (2018).