Friday, May 19, 2006

In Hell

Jean-Claude Van Damme does a fine impression of Dolph Lundgren. He brilliantly captures the Swede's oeuvre, that sparkle in the man’s eyes that send out mass frequencies of artistic credibility every time they are open. What was once suspected of being cataracts, was in fact glimmer. Not glimmer as in The Glimmer Man with Steven Seagal (that would just be stupid), but the glimmer of deluges of resplendent grandeur.

A microcosm of being lies in those vortexes, and often it stands up and walks around the cornea, sometimes even going to the vestigial eyelid to pick up a paper. It’ll sit and read The Independent draped over the iris, its own limbs dangling down into the pupil. As it peruses the intricacies of South American politics (it regularly wears a badge with Hugo Chavez’s face etched on it), it will intermittently sip from a nearby mug of steaming caffeine, bought first thing over by the ciliary. It knows little of what’s going on in Big Brother, it cares not an ounce for the scandals erupting in the vicinity of those footballing chaps, those money joy-riders hopped up on blondes with exponential chest cavities, autobiographies shipped off to press before the morning of their 18th birthday. “Give them the money,” says the tabloids, “and while you’re at it, here’s the sort of attention that’d make De Sade blush.” And blush he would, despite those prosodic adventures he was nevertheless one to turn a fluorescent crimson when the topic of male and female organs uniting in a vibrating blob of lust was raised. Sure he’d say, “aye, let me take a fine close and detailed inspection of what precisely is entering what here.” But deep down his disgust was rife, his plasma cells were known to group together and have protest marches just south of his pancreas over the inherent filth being broadcast all over the show. Beanies, denims, and placards that read: “Less sex, more James Woods.” Alas the flaws in this are overt, the ambiguities chucked their naked torsos all over those boards.

This is what Van Damme conjures in his famed impression of Lundgren. In many ways he creates something unique, something that wasn’t there before, a new paradigm, a new perspective. In many ways his impression defines Lundgren, it straightforwardly decries Lundgren’s lanky musk. It shoots him down in an explosion of muscle tinged with warm lemonade.

Van Damme is known for captivating his audience’s attention in this way, whether he is cranking out the humour on set, or pulverising our glands on screen. In Hell is one of his more recent excursions into the straight to DVD world, an outing mysteriously receiving much rejoicing amongst those who like to sample the odd cinema every now and again.

In Hell has Van Damme living in Russia, but when his wife is murdered and he subsequently kills the perpetrator he is sentenced to a lifetime of good times in a harsh prison out in the wastes of rural Russia. This prison has a rather nasty warden who likes to have the inmates fight each other for his pleasure. And, I must say, the pleasure of the other inmates too; what an egalitarian he was under that shifty exterior.

So there you go, Van Damme’s in there and must fight people. But what is this? He turns out to be an extremely lame warrior, often getting a pummelling by big Russian men, and then sent into solitary, to presumably think about that beating he just received. While in this isolated environment, he is visited by a CGI butterfly that ignites a number of psychedelic flashbacks featuring his wife and her bikini. Eventually Van Damme gets sick and tired of his feeble ways, and during quite a long spell in the old solitary (assuming from his long hair growth and big beard it was upwards of a year) he decides to train up. And thus we get the training montage, a staple of the genre. Watch him pull up, and push up, and other ups. It pales in comparison to Kickboxer’s tree shindig, but then again so does everything.

A buff, and hairy, Van Damme emerges from this enforced detachment ready to take on that big guy who likes to rape little American idiot boys. Can he do it? Has he trained enough? What about that hair, surely it’ll get into those optic orbs and cause him to be without sight at the most vital moment?

These are the questions that propel the narrative. They run alongside the carriage, dragging its mass via the attachment of leather roping. Some bunch those questions are, I bestow a multitude of praise on them.

Van Damme proves he can still stand about in a movie and kick people in the jowls when prompted. He’s lost none of his previous vigour in that department. Yet the age is beginning to show. Sure he could kick my ass and your ass, and maybe even the drummer from Julie Laughs Nomore’s ass, but he is a shell of his past self. He’s dying inside. And it pains me to say. But I do like to view him as some sort of cocoon, and eventually he’s going to rip open and a vibrant Van Damme butterfly will issue from the rotting remains and take elegant flight off into the sunset. At least that’s how I imagine it, there might be more pus in reality, but it’s bound to happen. It is a constant cycle. It’s just that he’s currently getting into that chrysalis stage where he’s going to be a bit crap.

But back to the film. In Hell, taking advantage of a plethora of stereotypes left over from the old Soviet Union days, paints a wonderfully horrid picture of the Russian penitentiary. Although it is nice that they all speak English, that’s always something. I think I could overlook the urine beside my bed if only I could talk to someone about the merits of Jeff Fahey.

One particularly joyous scene has Van Damme being introduced into his new cell that he must share with a large American who has killed his last four or five cellmates. Although he doesn’t kill Van Damme. Probably Van Damme tells better jokes than his predecessors.

The highlight of the flick comes when our freshly invigorated hero must do battle with a member of the Russian mafia. The back and forth progresses for a while before the Russian begins to mount an advantage, and ends up beating down Van Damme, even giving him the old legs between the metal pole skit. But unexpectedly Van Damme recovers in four seconds and launches a vicious attack, one that ends by him biting a large chunk of Russian neck. The scene ends with Van Damme lying on the ground, blood around the lips, screaming spasmodically with some slight writhing to and fro. The image is complete with his massive hair forming a frame for his expulsions.

In the end it’s no Kickboxer or Bloodsport, but we mustn’t forget the current status of Van Damme. Soon Van Damme’s wings with sprout from beneath his blemished skin, and you’ll be lucky to see him doing anything near the bottom shelf ever again.


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