Monday, May 5, 2014

Film Review: DEATH WARRANT (1990, Deran Sarafian)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 89 minutes.
Tag-line: "He loves a good fight."
Notable Cast or Crew: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cynthia Gibb (SHORT CIRCUIT 2, YOUNGBLOOD), Robert Guillaume (BENSON, BIG FISH), George Dickerson (Laura Dern's dad from BLUE VELVET, DEATH WISH 4), Art LaFleur (COBRA, FIELD OF DREAMS), Joshua John Miller (TEEN WITCH, NEAR DARK), Abdul Salaam El Razzac (GLORY, TERMINATOR 2), Larry Hankin (ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, HOME ALONE), Al Leong (DIE HARD, LETHAL WEAPON, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), and Patrick Kilpatrick (LAST MAN STANDING, ERASER).  Written by David S. Goyer (THE DARK KNIGHT, BLADE, BATMAN BEGINS).  Produced by Mark DiSalle (KICKBOXER, BLOODSPORT) and Andrew G. La Marca (ROBOCOP 3, TIMEBOMB).  Directed by Deran Sarafian (ALIEN PREDATOR, INTERZONE, TERMINAL VELOCITY).  Cinematography by Russell Carpenter (CRITTERS 2, TRUE LIES, Oscar-winner for TITANIC).
Best One-liner:  "I don't pay... I don't punk!"

DEATH WARRANT holds the wonderful distinction of being a "lost" Cannon Film.  "Lost" not in that it was ever missing– only in that though Cannon actually produced it, it doesn't have this wonderful beacon of light shining the way to its first reel:

The way I understand it, it was written and shot as "DUSTED" from a script by USC student David S. Goyer (who went on to write the BLADE series and co-write the Nolan BATMAN movies), but post-production, Cannon underwent its first bankruptcy and split up the Go-Go boys (which led to the whole Yoram Globus' LAMBADA vs. Menahem Golan's THE FORBIDDEN DANCE IS LAMBADA fiasco) and MGM ended up with most of the Cannon library.  (Golan took over the 21st Century Film Corporation from 1990-1996 and Globus limped along with a scaled-back version of Cannon Films till 1994.)  Whew.

To make a long story short, the completed DUSTED was left in the hands of MGM's distribution wing who changed the title to DEATH WARRANT, and the rest is history.  So I guess you could say Cannon Films is DEATH WARRANT's common law husband–  only because Golan and Globus weren't able to put that beautiful Cannon ring on DEATH WARRANT's dainty finger and make an honest woman of her.

 Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

Now that you know DEATH WARRANT is actually a Cannon Film in disguise, it will make a little more sense that it seems to be a loose, prison-set reimagining of COBRA, with elements of CYBORG, RUNAWAY TRAIN, and MURPHY'S LAW thrown in for good measure.  It's sort of an artsy affair, too, featuring a lot of nice lighting and well-framed shots, courtesy of future Oscar-winning DP Russell Carpenter.

Here, JCVD is "Louis Burke," a happy-go-lucky French Canadian cop ("This is L.A., not Canada– we have procedures here!") hot on the trail of the indestructible "Sandman" (Patrick Kilpatrick), a madman who commands a criminal army.  If you think that sounds exactly like Stallone's "Marion 'Cobra' Cobretti" seeking the superhuman "Night Slasher" (Brian Thompson) and his axe-wielding brigade in COBRA, you'd be exactly right.  But let me ask you:  did COBRA have a scene where Cobra and the Night Slasher almost kissed?

See?  Totally different movie.

 As if it wasn't 'COBRA enough' already, the film also co-stars Art LaFleur as an abusive prison guard:

 whom you may recognize as Stallone's crusty Captain in COBRA, among other roles.

Anyway, the film diverges somewhat from COBRA when JCVD goes undercover in prison ("You're from Quebec, no one will recognize you!") to investigate a totally separate case that involves prisoners being mysteriously murdered for their body parts.  Helping on the case is Cynthia Gibb (SHORT CIRCUIT 2, YOUNGBLOOD)
who fills in for the JCVD trope of a no-nonsense, spunky female reporter (here, a no-nonsense, spunky cop).

JCVD gets some obligatory "naked solitary confinement" in there:

(What is this, the prison from DEMOLITION MAN?)

and everything seems to be going fine, but, of course, the line "You're from Quebec, no one will recognize you" doesn't always hold up, and...  enter, Sandman!  (Cue obligatory JCVD/Christ torture scene– as seen in every single other Van Damme film.)


JCVD has a big showdown with the Sandman, there's a prison riot, and then the film conveniently forgets about three or four plotlines (including the body-part-stealing mystery that he infiltrated the prison to solve in the first place) and the "Big Bad" who we never suspected appears to get away with his crimes scot free because we were all distracted by how awesome JCVD's climactic fight with the Sandman was.

and the flaming Jean-Claude crazy face– that's sort of distracting, too.

So that's the film in a nutshell– now on to the minutiae I so adore:

#1.  Jazz-Casual Van Damme.

In one of his first scenes, JCVD appears at the police station with a spring in his step.  It's character development time, and they need to establish that he's a free n' loose n' bushy-tailed kinda guy who saunters around to jazzy MIDI tracks and is all hugs and high-fives and handshakes.  Who needs to be the life of the party when you're the life of the office?  I have chronicled the beauty of this moment in a clip I have entitled "JCVD starts his day nice n' breezy."

If I had one wish, it would be that I could wake up every morning feeling like THAT (and to that music).

#2.  Joshua John Miller.  Son of Father Karras from THE EXORCIST (Jason Miller) and sometimes known as "that weird kid from the 80s" from his appearances in TEEN WITCH, RIVER'S EDGE, NEAR DARK, CLASS OF 1999, and HALLOWEEN III. 

Here he plays the "hacker kid" archetype (do we blame WARGAMES for this?) who assists Cynthia Gibb in her prison research.  He gets to be smarmy and nerdy and hits on an older woman, so there's that.

#3.  George Dickerson.
Best known (to me) for playing Laura Dern's father in BLUE VELVET, George Dickerson was already a Cannon alumnus (he's in DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN), and he excels at playing benevolent authority figures with a little something "off."  I can't tell if that extra something is added by an unintentional streak of 'bad acting' or if it's evidence of subtle genius at play.  Either way, the end result is the same:  George Dickerson is terrific.

#4.  Frightening Sandman One-Liners.
Anything and everything you would expect is here, from "Time to go to sleep!"  to "Bring me a dream, Burke.... BRING ME A DREAM!"  You'll be reciting this stuff for weeks.

#5. Jean-Claude don't pay– and he don't punk!

Ah, Day 1 of prison.   JCVD's new roomie– played by poor man's David Patrick Kelly and pleather vest aficionado Conrad Dunn– tells him to get on his knees and give him a beej–
but being a street smart kind of guy, JCVD manhandles him and explains:
"I don't pay... I don't punk."  To which the new roomie replies:  "I was just jerkin' you around– you don't have to be a hairball about it."  God Bless Cannon Films.

#6.  The magical prison-basement drag-queen underworld ("You gotta cover your ass down here– literally!"), which totally recalls the "descent into the Kumite underworld" sequence in BLOODSPORT.  I swear it's intentional.
Past the chiffon curtains, there's a kind of improbable "anything goes" zone, where there's free and easy access to makeup and costume jewelry and vanity mirrors and headshot photographers and the like.
The domain is ruled by the pimp king "Priest" (brilliant character actor Abdul Salaam El Razzac) who, like Gary Oldman in TRUE ROMANCE, is a little terrifying and likable at the same time.  He's pictured here, between the bored-lookin' gal on the left and the Rick James-inspired courtesan on the right.
With intensity and eventual pathos, he carves his own niche out of DEATH WARRANT and turns it into the Abdul Salaam El Razzac Acting Workshop.  Nice job!

#7.  So there's no Danny Trejo.  Which I think is actually a violation of the "Danny Trejo Must Appear in Every Movie Where There's a Scene in a Prison" Act of 1985, signed into law by President Reagan.  But, thanks to a loophole in the "If There's Action of Any Kind, There's Al Leong" Amendment to the Constitution, we at least get Al in there.
Nice to see you, Al.  Now go fight Van Damme- he's got a hold of a mop handle!

#8.  Barbel fight.  The fights get pretty creative in DEATH WARRANT.  And frankly, two dudes trying to kill each other with free weights grabs the attention
(and Jean-Claude gets out of this unfortunate barbel-to-the-throat predicament by... grabbin' some nuts).

#9.  Also, broken lightbulb knife fight.
"Time to bleeeeed!"  This should be fairly self-explanatory, but that doesn't make it any less fantastic.

#10.  No splits.  Damn!  

Sure, JCVD gets plenty of kick-blasting opportunities for leg extension
but never actually does one of his trademark splits.  The sad thing is, there's a scene where JCVD hides from prison guards atop an ventilation shaft which was clearly tailor-made for an acrobatic JCVD split.

Ah, well.  Still, I gotta give this thing four stars.

–Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Ooooooooooooooooh yeah! Nothing like some surprise Van Dammage to start the work week! With this one and also Lionheart, I'm always torn between putting them in the "best of second-tier Van Damme films," or "am I underrating them just because I'm waaaaaaaaaay too partial to the almighty, unbeatable Bloodsport/Kickboxer duo." There's probably no point in ranking them anyway, they're all winners! I don't really have anything to add, but thanks for this, as always, and I hope one day you get around to JCVD's "Knock Off," which just might be the most ridiculous movie ever made!

Sean Gill said...


Glad you enjoyed, and you're certainly right in that they're all winners! I hope to get to KNOCK OFF one day, I've still never seen it, and it's lived in the Netflix queue for quite some time now. Sounds like I'm in for a treat.

John Guedes said...

Joshua John Miller! That dude's like the original McLovin, "ladies, ladies." I'm surprised you didn't mention that he was also in HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH.

Haven't see DEATH WARRANT in years, will have to watch it again one of these days.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stoppin' by! It's a pity JJM hasn't done much film work since his golden era (only three roles in the 24 years since DEATH WARRANT), though it looks as if he has directorial aspirations. I actually did sneak in a l'il mention of HALLOWEEN III there, and in looking again at his list of credits, I am upset there he was never in a film called TEEN WITCH III: SEASON OF THE HALLOWEEN.

Phil Hubbs said...

WOW haven't seen this for ages, classic adult Van Dammage for sure. Was never really a big hit on his CV though.

You should rewatch 'Cyborg'


John Guedes said...

Woops, looks like you did mention it. In my defense, I was distracted by your mentioning of NEAR DARK which got me thinking about that movie again (I brought it up in your Titanic post in reference to Jenette Goldstein), so much so that I ordered the blu-ray on amazon (used of course, a new copy is selling for $38.95?!).

Sean Gill said...


CYBORG's definitely a favorite. I did a review of it a ways back:

Also, I must thank you for mentioning Jean-Claude's CV, which led me to the thought: does his resume header say "JCVD CV" ?


Heh, no worries– I do love me some NEAR DARK. $38 seems pretty excessive,especially with the TWILIGHT-style redone cover art. Gahh!

Unknown said...

You're hilarious!! I thought I was writing this Mlog...u have my boyfriend and I crying with tears..Dead on the sarcastic ridderic!! Pleeeaaaassseeee give us more!!

Unknown said...

You're hilarious!! I thought I was writing this Mlog...u have my boyfriend and I crying with tears..Dead on the sarcastic ridderic!! Pleeeaaaassseeee give us more!!

Sean Gill said...


Very glad you enjoyed, and thanks for stopping by!