Color, 1990, 89 mins. 3 ses.
Directed by Deran Sarafian
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Robert Guillaume, Cynthia Gibb, Patrick Kilpatrick, George Dickerson, Art LaFleur, Joshua Miller
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-Ray) (US RA HD), MGM (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC/ (1.85:1) (16:9)
After ascending to action leading man status with the Cannon epic Bloodsport in 1988, Belgian actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme rapidly became one of the most reliable names in the genre with his trademark kicking style working its way into all of his films. Following the collapse of Cannon (for whom he also made Cyborg and Kickboxer), Van Damme moved to the studio big time with two films in 1990: Lionheart for Universal and Death Warrant for MGM. Shot as a Cannon production but taken over in post-production during the company's dissolution, the latter film, sort of a crazed variation on the previous year's Stallone vehicle Lock Up, earned its place in the cinematic history books as the first produced script by David S. Goyer (originally entitled Dusted) before he went on to all three Christopher Nolan Batman films. Fast moving and highly entertaining, Death Warrant is also part of that unsung hybrid, the action-slasher film, which also gave us the likes of 10 to Midnight, D-Tox, Hero and the Terror, and Silent Rage.
While trailing the man who killed his partner, Quebec cop Louis Burke (Van Damme) ends up on the mean streets of L.A. where he fires several bullets into the culprit, a serial killer known as the Sandman (Kilpatrick). For some reason, Burke decides to hang around for sixteen months and gets enlisted by a governor task force to look into the murders of one guard and eight prisoners at Harrison State Prison. With an election coming up and prison treatment a hot public issue, officials want the matter cleaned up as discreetly as possible. Burke is sent inside with a phony armed robbery conviction and relays information to the outside through recent Stanford grad Amanda (Gibb), who's posing as his wife. However, life inside proves to be challenging on many fronts thanks to abusive jailers and extreme racial tension, not to mention someone running around puncturing the back of people's skulls with an icepick. Through an inmate clerk named Hawkins (Guillaume), Burke works his way through the prison's underworld including a gender bender bordello in the basement and a corrupt guard system apparently working under orders from the outside. Meanwhile Amanda enlists the aid of a sexually aggressive computer hacker (Near Dark's Miller) to discover a hit list of prisoners based on their health reports... and Burke is next. On top of that, an old foe of Burke's soon shows up unexpectedly, setting the stage for a violent showdown.
As far as depictions of prison life go, Death Warrant is about as realistic as Stuart Gordon's Fortress. Of course, that's also a large part of the fun as it gets increasingly insane on the way to a final half hour that turns into a violent free for all lit like a music video. Van Damme is enjoyable to watch as always and even manages to both punch and kick someone within seconds of the opening credit for director Deran Sarafian (son of director Richard), who was also new to the studio game here after the VHS perennials To Die For and Alien Predators. The cast also does well, with the always reliable Guillaume doing well and sporting a cool "dead eye" effect; Gibb is also fine, even if she's stuck with a goofy romantic subplot that comes out of nowhere during a "conjugal visit." The action scenes themselves are a bit more few and far between than usual for Van Damme, though the wait is worth it for that lunatic finale that pits him against one of the actors' best adversaries from the era. Of course, it all wraps up with a very, ahem, committed power pop theme song at the end, "Bring Me a Dream," which doesn't seem to be aware of the preexisting musical connection to the villain's name and catchphrase.
Readily available on home video from MGM in every major format including VHS and laserdisc, Death Warrant turned up on DVD in 2001 featuring a widescreen transfer and a trailer; its eventual upgrade to Blu-ray from MGM came in 2012 (during a distribution deal through Fox) complete with a hideous Photoshopped cover. In 2020, Scorpion Releasing offered a Blu-ray reissue (available from Ronin Flix and Diabolik) featuring a new 2K scan of the interpositive; though framing looks essentially identical, the upgrade here is very obvious in the color timing with deeper blacks and a far more dynamic color palette that really comes into play during that last half hour with some eye-popping shades of orange and blue running riot all over the screen. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track nicely replicates the original Dolby Stereo mix, which decodes nicely to surround with solid support for regular Cannon composer Gary Chang's synth-heavy score. A new solo audio commentary with Sarafian is a great source of production info about the film and the source script, though it starts abruptly and has quite a few lengthy gaps of dead silence (which isn't surprising if you've heard any other MGM-connected tracks in the past couple of years). Also included are two new video interviews starting with Kilpatrick (9m59s), who talks about working on this film after trying out for the role of Hannibal Lecter/Lecktor in Manhunter and the decisions behind his wardrobe and head shaving appearance. Then actor Art LaFleur (7m20s) appears to chat about his role as the corrupt prison sergeant and making this film after The Blob, as well as his memories of Sarafian and the rest of the crew. The outstanding theatrical trailer is also included in glorious HD along with bonus ones for The Delta Force, P.O.W.: The Escape, Death Wish 3, The Dogs of War, Lone Wolf McQuade, Rollerball, and Body and Soul.
SCORPION RELEASING (2018 Blu-ray)
Reviewed on August 3, 2020.