Lack of coherence, acting talent knock 'Death Warrant' silly

September 18, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

I've just been accepted in the Jean-Claude Van Damme Academy of Motion Picture Acting, and I'm pretty darn excited. But I just can't make my mind up what to major in, and since I want a screen career just like M. Van Damme's, I can't afford to make any mistakes at all.

So, what to do? Should I major in cheek puffing? It's so cool when Van Damme, as he does frequently in his new film "Death Warrant," puffs his cheeks out until the lower half of his face is approximately the size of a softball, 16-inch variety. Under the Van Damme Method, this means, "Look out, sucker, gonna kick your right ear through your left ear hole."

Well, that's certainly appealing. But then again, the Van Damme academy also offers a world-renowned syllabus in eye-bulging. The master has a way of causing his eyes to nearly explode from their sockets as if they are about to leave his skull and go into geosynchronus orbit around his shoulders. What this means, invariably, is "Look out, sucker, gonna kick your right ear through your left ear hole."

Then there's diction. I like the idea of a major movie star from whose mouth you cannot understand a single word. Arnold Schwarzenegger did the pioneering work in this field, but unfortunately learned to speak some English and now is nearly 40 per cent intelligible. Van Damme, a purist, remains wholly sealed off in his own world.

A Belgian, he speaks with a French accent so dense that the plot of this film has a charmingly avant-garde quality to it, a sort of je ne sais quois. It appears to be set in a prison somewhere in California, but every time the brilliant Van Damme summarizes where we are in the story, it sounds like the dubbed version of "The Nutty Professor" that played at

Paris' Odeon Theatre from 1962 through 1989.Though you can't quite follow what is said, you can infer that it is some variation upon, "Look out, zucker, je suis gonna kick le ear droit through le ear hole gauche."

From what I could tell, the tiny Belgian kickboxer is on loan from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Quebec district (thereby explaining the French accent) and agrees to go undercover in an American prison to find out who's been mysteriously murdering prisoners and for what reason. Well, let's just say that whoever's doing it has seen "Coma" and let it go at that.

Some of the strokes are wonderful: for one thing, none of the cons think it strange that a little man with a French accent has suddenly shown up among them. For another, the prison is wonderfully ... free. It's like a free high school in the mid-'60s where such bourgeois affectations as "discipline" and "education" have been done away with, in favor of the spontaneity of personal freedom.

Meanwhile, off on his own trip, the director Deran Safarian appears to believe he is Orson Welles making "Citizen Kane" for the first time. He didn't realize he was making "The Nutty Professor in the Slammer." Things would have worked out much better all around if Jean Claude had kicked his left ear through his right ear hole.

'Death Warrant'

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Directed by Deran Safarian.

Released by MGM/UA.

Rated R.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.