Back in the heyday of the video rental shop, a certain strand of derivative mass-market B-movie films suddenly found their niche and became hugely popular, becoming staples of film nights in university common rooms or the easy choice for a entertainment when guys had friends around for beers and curry. Eventually this sort of film became so popular that studio bosses could ignore it no longer and it burst out of its straight-to-video ghetto and became the template for genuine big-budget blockbusters, while their stars – Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Van Damme, Seagal, Lambert et al – became genuine megastars.
I raise this because Lockup feels very much a throwback to that mid-80s movie: it’s virtually a loving homage, a faithful recreation of that type of film. It’s all-action, no thought required – very enjoyable if you’re watching in a group, preferably with a beer in hand. The actual storyline is pretty much surplus to requirements and just does the minimum required to string together 90 minutes of explosions and fights, and is a pretty straightforward rip-off of – sorry, homage to – Escape from New York in that it’s about one man sent into an unusual high-security prison environment to rescue the President’s daughter who has found herself a hostage amid a major break-out.
In Lockup the prison is an orbiting space platform in the near future (so near, in fact, it seems that Apple has yet to improve the current iPhone operating system!) That makes it start to feel like a sci-fi version of The Rock and there are also echoes of Con Air, two mid-90s films that were among the first blockbusters to elevate the straight-to-video actionfest to a higher theatrical status. The film also wears the “Die Hard in space” tag proudly on its DVD sleeve thanks to the wisecracking one man rescue party crawling through air ducts in his efforts to save the day, who owes more to Bruce Willis’ John McClane than to Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken.
The majority of the actors in Lockup are cast with the minimum of fuss: the character of Langral might as well be described in the script notes as a ‘Peter Stormare type’ and lo! and behold the casting director does the decent thing and gets Stormare signed up. Similarly Lennie James and Vincent Regan play exactly the roles you’d expect, as does Lost star Maggie Grace as the President’s daughter. The only other significant character in the film is massively over-the-top mad psycho Hydell (Joseph Gilgun) who is the first to break out but also the root cause of everything that goes wrong thereafter.
The one bit of surprise left-of-field casting – and one that works very well – is that of Guy Pearce as the main protagonist Snow. Pearce has been around Hollywood for the better part of two decades now and has impressively starred in a lot of quality films, yet somehow without making it to major stardom. In Lockup it’s as if he’s shrugged and said, ‘Screw the quality films, let’s just have some fun for once’ – and he really does seem to be having a ball as a Bogart-esque anti-hero who wryly wisecracks and smart-mouths his way through the film, including some sharp banter with the leading lady once he rescues her. The pumped-up Pearce is quite the best thing about the film and he also manages to pull the usually anonymous Grace up to one of her best screen performances. Without him the film would be fairly pedestrian and routine, but his playing of Snow alone makes everything just that little bit more perky.
As a whole, Lockup is visually more stylish than its 80s antecedents (and you can really tell the influence of producer Luc Besson on the co-directors James Mather and Stephen St Leger) but its low-budget roots are still showing, especially in an early motorcycle chase scene which is startlingly sub-video game in its CGI execution. Not that it matters: Lockup knows what level it’s going for and has no pretensions to the contrary. It hits that target square on, and who can really ask for anything more? It’s fun, diverting and entertaining while also so very predictable that it won’t trouble your brain cells for a moment, despite a grafted-on political conspiracy/espionage frame-up sub-plot that’s been added to the prison break core.
Is that a bad thing? No, not really – there’s always a place for ‘big and dumb.’ For those who do want something more then there’s Pearce’s performance to enjoy. The end result of that combination is a surprisingly enjoyable solid three-star action flick.
Lockup is currently airing on Sky Movies. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray.