The movies of martial-arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme are known for their quick leaps from theaters to video stores, not for their clever foreshadowing and plot twists. This time out, when detective Louis Burke (Van Damme) goes behind bars to discover why some prisoners keep getting ice picks through their brains, you assume right away that the bigwigs who put him there are responsible for the murders, and you’re right. The plot is so predictable that it’s almost a surprise.
But if Death Warrant is short on suspense, it’s long on little oddities: A prison pimp named Priest (Abdul Salaam El Razzac) rules a netherworld of transvestite whores, and a hormone-ravaged, adolescent computer geek (Danny Weselis) comes out of nowhere to help Van Damme’s love interest (Cynthia Gibb) break the prison’s access code. And Patrick Kilpatrick is chilling as a seemingly indestructible (do I smell a sequel?) bad guy.
As for Van Damme, he’s positively Astaire-like when he’s kickboxing: This beautifully lethal brand of martial arts, full of spectacular midair spins and kicks, is Van Damme’s specialty. The rest of the time he’s more Dolph Lundgren-like, holding the same stony expression as he’s locked up and stripped naked in solitary, gashed in the stomach, pummeled with the biggest wrench you’ve ever seen, and chained to some exposed plumbing while another inmate rips his shirt off. But his Belgian accent is charming, and he even shows an occasional flash of Schwarzenegger-esque comic timing, suggesting that some day, perhaps, he might prove he can act.