Death Warrant: Revisiting JCVD’s Forgotten Prison Flick

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Death Warrant remains one of the most obscure films of his early output. How does it hold up?

1990 was a peak year for Van Damage. The Muscles from Brussels was on the way to the big time after Bloodsport and Kickboxer (which made our list of the Best Fighting Movies) proved to be huge moneymakers at the box office. But, Jean-Claude Van Damme was different from some of his contemporaries because he was a hearthrob and a prime butt-kicker. His 1990 movie Lionheart was bought for distribution by Universal, paving the way to his breaking into mainstream studio work. But, before he could jump on that gravy train, he had one more movie left to make on his Cannon movie deal – but ironically, the company itself would not release the film theatrically due to its waning fortunes, with this being Van Damme’s first major studio release after MGM opted to distribute it. The movie? Death Warrant!

In this one, JCVD plays a cop named Burke, who, after putting down a serial killer called The Sandman, is convinced to take an undercover assignment in a prison where all the inmates are dying mysteriously. One thing that’s always fun with Van Damme’s movies is how they try to explain his thick Belgian accent. In this one, they say that Van Damme is playing a French Canadian cop from Quebec. The fact that the state of California would assign a cop from Quebec to an American prison doesn’t make a lick of sense, but hey – who cares – this is action movie logic.

Now, the premise for this one is cool. It was writer David S. Goyer’s first sold screenplay, with it initially having a much better title – Dusted – based on how the Sandman kills his victims. Cannon Pictures financed the film, but they were in dire straits then. In the late eighties, the company over-extended themselves on a hefty series of big-budget movies, all of which flopped. Those movies include Lifeforce, Masters of the Universe, Superman IV, and Over the Top. Meneham Golan would lose his place with the company, with it being sold to Pathé, who later merged with MGM, which is one of the reasons this movie came out via that company. Golan would launch his own company, 21st Century Film Corporation, while his cousin and partner Yoram Globus would stay with Cannon.

JCVD death warrant 1990

JCVD was still under contract at the time, so this became a quickie actioner meant to generate some quick change. That’s why the film looks so cheap; with it having a prison set that looks so cheap it’s a wonder the movie didn’t go direct to video. If someone like Michael Dudikoff had been the star, it certainly would have, but Van Damme was on the rise, which might explain how they assembled a solid cast for a Cannon pic.

JCVD’s main co-star in the movie was Robert Guillaume, a prominent actor known for his long-running sitcom Benson. He delivers a fine performance as the one-eyed lifer who takes Van Damme under his wing and helps him solve the murders at the prison. Conrad Dunn, who you may remember as “Psycho” in Stripes, plays Burke’s cell mate, while Larry Hankin has a solid part as a prison trustee who meets a grim end. There’s also Abdul Salaam El-Razzac as the sympathetic prison fixer Priest who arguably saves the day at the end of the movie, Armin Shimerman from Star Trek Deep Space Nine as a shifty doctor, Art LaFleur as the villainous prison hack, and more. Best of all, though, is the smoking hot Cynthia Gibb as, a young lawyer assigned to pose as Burke’s wife, and quickly starts making puppy dog eyes at him on visiting day, leading to some time in the conjugal visit trailer.

And, of course, nineties b-movie legend Patrick Kilpatrick plays the big bad, Sandman, who – SHOCKER – turns out to be alive and well in the finale and is now in the same prison as Burke. The two have a big scrap at the end, and Kilpatrick handles himself well despite not being a poised martial artist like Van Damme.

jean Claude Van Damme death warrant

However, Death Warrant has a few problems. For one, there’s not enough action. The budgets at Cannon had gotten low at this point, which is evident if you’ve seen movies like Down Twisted or American Ninja 3. They couldn’t afford huge fights, so most of the prison scraps, minus the big one at the end, are short. Still, Van Damme gets by on his charm in this one, and you can see why MGM figured it was worth a theatrical release, with it grossing a solid $16 million, which made it Cannon’s biggest hit in years – although by the time it came out they weren’t able to enjoy the windfall.

As for JCVD, it would be his last B-movie, with him moving on to bigger movies as soon as he wrapped production. The director, Deran Sarafian, would make two more cool 90s flicks, Gunmen, which teamed Christopher Lambert and Mario Van Peebles, and Terminal Velocity, starring a sky-diving Charlie Sheen. This was just a stepping stone for everyone involved, but it holds up as a fun piece of late-night action cheese.

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