In Hell (2003) Review
In Hell was directed by Ringo Lam (City on Fire, Maximum Risk), written by Eric James Virgets and Jorge Alvarez, and stars Jean-Claude Van Damme (The Last Mercenary, We Die Young) Lawrence Taylor (Shaft, Any Given Sunday), Alan Davidson (Frailty, 13), Chris Moir (Will to Power, Hatchetman), Billy Rieck (Crocodile 2: Death Swamp, Shadow Fury), Kaloian Vodenicharov (Ghosts of War, The Russian Specialist), Marnie Alton (Replicant, Cult of Fury), and Lloyd Battista (The Silent Stranger, Blindman). It follows a man in prison struggling to survive as he fights fellow prisoners to the death for the warden’s entertainment.
The Plot: In Hell’s plotting is dirty, grimy, and to the point. Kyle (Van Damme) is working tirelessly overseas in Russia to his wife Grey’s (Alton) dismay, Kyle decides to take a few days off to be with her and while he is driving home he hears her being attacked over the phone. She is killed and the killer, Sergio, is set free which prompts Kyle to kill Sergio. Kyle is handed a life sentence and sent to a brutal prison run by Hruschov (Battista).
Kyle befriends Billy (Moir), a young man constantly subjected to beatings and rapes by Andrei; and Malakai (Davidson), a wheelchair-bound prison veteran. Kyle beats Andrei and is sent to solitary where he meets 451 (Taylor) and eventually grows to trust him. Kyle must use his resolve and his new friends to fight and survive, and hopefully, get out of prison.
The Characters: The characters are well written for the most part, despite falling into cliché a number of times. Kyle is an excellent protagonist, having a strong beginning in being a hardworking man who does not get the time he wants to spend with his wife. His transformation is entirely believable, from a man on the receiving end of seemingly endless beatings and brushes with death to a fighting machine desperate to fight for the sole reason of thinking about his deceased loved one.
451 is a decent character that does not stray far from the formula, being the formerly violent, now kind of reformed writing type who abstains from conflict as much as he can and only wants peace and quiet while he lives out his days in prison. The character is a common one, but he is still serviceable nonetheless. Billy and Malakai are similarly familiar but are believable enough in the environment. Hruschov is indefensibly bland, however, having no traits to set him apart from the endless other corrupt wardens.
The performances in In Hell are very good, with Van Damme showing more depth and emotion than previously performed. Taylor, Davidson, and Moir are all good as well. Battista is the only one who misses the mark.
The Thrills: The drama is very good, with Kyle’s descent into being nothing more than a brute for a significant portion of the movie being expertly crafted using Van Damme’s emotional yet understated performance, his grief, and a solid musical score. Action is brutally shot, with choreography taking a backseat to sheer barbarism. Each fight in the “Sparka” feels like an underground fight club with no rules and no respect between the fighters and those who force them to duel.
The stakes are legitimate, with prisoners dying in the fights and beatings being equal parts bone-breaking and soul-crushing. All the more surprising in a movie starring Van Damme is that he gets the crap kicked out of him for most of the runtime, sometimes never landing a single hit on his aggressors. It is expertly against type for the action star.
The Technics: Technically In Hell is good. Narration by 451 is used to moderate effect where conversations between him and Kyle would have allowed for (even) more solid acting from Van Damme and less of a feeling of telling the viewer how to feel. The camera work is good, with the shots of action being very well filmed, which is one of the most crucial pieces of the puzzle being a standout aspect.
Although some of the work in between the fights is a bit flat, the prison itself is well done, with each cell feeling lonely and punishing through its dim lighting, cracked walls, and limited colour palette which is especially clear in all of the scenes taking place in the fields and farmland surrounding the prison.
In Hell is a solid prison movie bolstered by a fantastically understated and emotional performance from Jean-Claude Van Damme. The setting is well showcased, but some of the characters are pretty generic. The movie does bow to cliché from time to time, but it is done well, which is the important part.
In Hell is available on various Digital platforms. You can check which ones are available in your location on JustWatch.