Lock Up Movie Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review
Lock Up Movie Review

Please note this US release from Lionsgate is encoded for A and B regions.

After the Rocky and Rambo series both petered-out in the late 80's, but just before a couple of abortive forays into comedy forced Sylvester Stallone to return to the genre that had created him in the first place, he had one last gasp at a large-scale rousing crowd-pleaser. He'd tackled the world of arm-wrestling (ooh exciting) in the dumb Over The Top. He'd tried his hand at playing Dirty Harry in the ridiculous Cobra. He even teamed up with another action hero who found himself in a similar career doldrum, Kurt Russell, for the incredibly stupid (but still terrific fun) Tango & Cash. But it seemed that the Italian Stallion had broken some celebrity small-print rule and, in 1989, he found himself banged-up and punished for the crime of celebrity ego-boosting in John Flynn's claustrophobic prison drama, Lock Up ... and, for me, all his sins were forgiven.

Infinitely better than either Cobra or the thematically similar Tango & Cash, Lock-Up is a hard film about hard men doing hard time in the hardest of places. So, if you're not a Stallone fan, hard luck, because we're going to spend some time in the slammer with a superstar who has proved himself to be anything but expendable.

“Your body has to be here, but your mind can be anywhere.”

Frank Leone (Stallone) is a model prisoner. The inmates love him, the guards respect him. He is allowed happy and harmonious trips outside the prison walls to meet with his luscious girlfriend, Melissa (Darlanne Fluegel from To Live And Die In LA) and, all things considered, he's fairly contented with his lot and with only six months of his sentence left to serve, the future looks bright. But then, in the middle of another cosy night in what amounts to virtually a holiday camp, he is suddenly transferred to the dreaded maximum security penitentiary of Gateway, a festering hole of violence and oppression, presided over by the tyrannical Warden Drumgoole (a seething, dark-hearted Donald Sutherland). A place, he is informed in no uncertain terms, where six months can “feel like a lifetime” ... especially when the Warden has got it in for him. You see, these two have got some history. Five years before, Drumgoole refused to allow Frank permission to go to an old friend's funeral and Frank, moralistic and devoted, went over the wall and became the only man to have ever outwitted Drumgoole. And since exposing the Warden's fascist regime as a result, Frank became a media hero and Drumgoole was shunted, unceremoniously, to Gateway, the backside of beyond. With vengeance on his mind and plenty of strings pulled to get his enemy right where he wants him, Drumgoole is positively beaming with malevolent glee at having this particular rat in his trap. When his hard-line guards aren't putting the boot in, Drumgoole's vicious Yard-Boss, Chink Webber (the ever-threatening Sonny Landham), is tasked with making Leone's life a battered and bruised misery. And Chink takes a pride in his work.

“He would have put that shank into you. What did you cover for him for?”

“You got your rules. We got ours.”

Frank just wants to do his time and earn his freedom. But it seems that the world and his dog just won't let him. He's going to be doing his hard time, the hard way, that's for sure ... unless he can find a way to fight back.

Unsurprisingly, Lock Up is made up of a thousand clichés, from the tough guys who are in with the Warden, to the bonds forged under duress, to the hellish stints down in The Hole. Director John Flynn (Rolling Thunder, Out For Justice) trots them out with pleasing conviction though, knowing full well that he isn't breaking new ground ... just adding to the then-unstoppable mythology of the king of 80's action. And, as a result, it is the series of “Stallone Movie Clichés” that makes this prison-yarn so damn awesome. Provided you like this sort of “underdog unjustly persecuted by the Man” sort of thing. Flynn ticks all the boxes in the Super-Sly Play-List. We have hefty blokes having a pop at Stallone whilst he is forced, by circumstance, to do nothing but take it, his ever-growing resentment kept in-check behind those puppy-dog eyes and that curled lip. We have the veiled background of notoriety - you've done it before, Frank, come on ... you can do it again, that the other prisoners reluctantly acknowledge. There is the extended sporting challenge in which Stallone takes on all-comers and eventually wins by attrition and good old home-sown courage. Rambo III had him beating the Mujahidin at their own game of, ahem, goat-dragging. Lock Up finds him guzzling mud and blood by the bucket-load in the dirtiest game of football ever, although, to be fair to the screenplay from Jeb Stuart and Richard Smith, Leone only barely survives the torment in one piece. All this naturally leads to the begrudging build-up of respect that Frank wins with such constant battling and an innate refusal to give in. Plus, we are privileged to witness his inspirational attitude in helping to unify a cluster of former no-hopers with the shared goal of rebuilding a old clunker in the prison machine-shop and, of course, the protracted montage of them all mucking-in and getting the job done. It's the Rocky Training Montage relocated and automated, but the confidence boosting ego-trip is just the same and if you buy into it, then you'll feel just as uplifted as when Rocky finally catches that damn chicken or runs up all of those steps. What we don't have, however, is the sight of the big guy running towards us in slow-motion as a massive fireball eats up the world behind him. But this is still a typical Stallone vehicle in every other respect. And, hey, isn't it heart-warming that he's still doing all this stuff - and doing it very well, I might add - even in his mid-sixties?

And Lock Up provides him with the perfect excuse to unleash that celebrated celluloid whup-ass that he does so well.

No-one goes into impulsive, sudden vengeance mode better than Stallone. He takes the knocks, he goes down again and again, he suffers humiliation and degradation on the chin with humility. But once that hidden, unseen button is pressed and his combat rage suffuses him in a red mist, you can't help but stand up alongside him and wish that you could charge into the fray right behind him. And such it is with Lock Up's grandstanding table-turning payback sequence when Leone decides that he just won't take any more. “You want me ... you got me,” he growls like a mantra as he surveys the pitiful aftermath of some appalling violence designed purely to push him over the edge, and it would be inconceivable not to feel the same murderous urges that he feels now that the final line has been crossed. As the door bursts open onto the snow-buffeted penitentiary recreational grounds and Leone stands there, a barbell plate in his hand, searching for his long-standing quarry, every primal impulse that society has tried to beat out of us ignites into one chain-reaction of moral-bludgeoning aggression. Arnie tended to just kill the baddies by the dozen with a flippant one-liner. Sly makes it personal and slugs it out with them. It dates back to the burning rage that smoked from his eyes when he glared into Gault's smashed-in face in First Blood, and Stallone has managed to keep this blazing hatred just as volatile ever since. To wit, the glorious disemboweling of the Burmese officer in the blood-fest of Rambo IV. And it is this untethered sense of natural justice that sings out to the underdog within us all.

“You won't break me ...”

To fuel this righteous revenge we have Donald Sutherland on excellently loopy form. Long known for coming up with maverick and unorthodox performances - check out Oddball in Kelly's Heroes, for instance - the imposingly gangly actor has his hair shorn down to an officious crop-top and assumes the regal air of the Devil, himself, as he presides over the hellish enclave of Gateway. Indeed, he likens his prison to the Pit, and with sinister politeness offers his services to Leone as its tour guide. With his semi-whispered line delivery and those piercing and knowing eyes he truly comes across as some all-seeing, ever-watchful sentinel perched forever, like a gargoyle, from an intimidating vantage point above his inmates. He actually makes the skin crawl with this macabre and slimy portrayal. The script doesn't come out and say it, but there is something homoerotic about his obsession with keeping Frank down. Always watching, always trying to suppress a little smirk at every degradation and punishment that his nemesis experiences. Gently tapping the bars of his prey's cell in a nocturnal tease ... willing Leone to take a life just so that he keep him caged forever as his plaything.

“I told you we'd play later, you little bitch!”

I've discussed the awesome force of nature that is Sonny Landham, ex-porn star turned Hollywood nutcase, a few times before. So intimidating in 48 Hrs, so pulverising in Predator, and so calmly sinister in Southern Comfort. Here, as the bestial Native Indian cell-block king, Chink, he is at his most menacing. Being locked-in with this guy would be a worse fate than that of a US Marine at the hands of the Taliban, and with his clandestine mission from Drumgoole to make Leone's life a living hell every second of the day, you just know that this there are going to be some seriously uncomfortable times ahead. Stallone would go on to face the equally terrifying Robert (Maniac Cop) D'Zar in the jail in Tango & Cash - the guy with the biggest damn chin in the universe - but there was too much comedy value in that confrontation. Here, in Gateway, the heat is on and the bones are breaking and when Chink puts the pressure on there is only pain to look forward to.

Frank's going to need a circle of buddies if he's going to stand a chance of making it in Gateway. The once-great Tom Sizemore shakes down the stereotypical ham as the wise-talking fixer Dallas, becoming the linchpin to which Frank must adhere when things get even tougher and escape seems like the only possible option. Frank McCrae is impressive as the hulking but gentle giant Eclipse, the contraband-savouring king of the machine-shop. Larry Romano is hugely irritating at first as the tough-talking buffoon that they christen First Base, but he will endeavour to leave a lasting impression on us as the film moves along and a terrible sacrifice is made. There's a little nod made to the traditional “Bird Man” that every prison drama must have as well, ensuring that Leone's altruistic umbrella has room for all. Well, nearly all. There are certainly a few head-cases in Gateway that you wouldn't want to bump into in the shower besides Chink, because if you've got a colourful roster of supporting good guys, you're going to need an equally screen-chewing tribe of baddies to complete the dynamic. Asides from Drumgoole and Chink, we've got John Amos' Chief of Guards, Mr. Meissner. “You need to know two things, inmate. The first is I'm Meissner. The second ... don't f*ck with Meissner.” Hard but fair, Meissner is a serious piece of work and as stoic as a wall of granite, especially behind those mirror sunglasses. And then you've got the fun-boy-three of Jordan Lund's lard-filled bully Manly, who looks like a fat Vic Reeves but proves to be quite a sadistic swine if he has a riot shield and a big stick to hide behind. John Lilla as his little equivalent of Bob Mortimer, Wiley, his conniving sidekick. And then there's David Anthony Marshall as the trap-springing Officer Mastrone, who actually looks as though he has had plastic surgery to make his expression even more wicked. In fact, imagine Bill Paxton's famous grin and extend it to nightmarish Joker-like proportions and you've got him. “RAPE THIS!!!” growls Leone before putting an altogether different expression on that face. And if you look a little more closely at the tattooed brawlers that dominate the screen, you'll even spot Machete, himself, Danny Trejo in the ranks of Chink's condemned club.

When you see Schwarzenegger in a film, you are under absolutely no illusion that he will not fail to save the day. He is immediately undefeatable. Only in Predator did we witness the Austrian Oak in real trouble - and the film was all the better for it. But Stallone is different. Okay, we never think for one second that he will lose. But his journey from his knees to triumph is so fraught with mini-failures and beset with tragedies that we genuinely feel that he has earned any eventual success. You don't see Arnie take a beating like Sly. You don't see him on the ropes emotionally as well as physically. You never once actually feel for an Arnie character the way that you do for one of Sly's. That old underdog mythos that Stallone built up around himself - the so-called true American Hero - is a winning one. He doesn't have to be a fat, over-the-hill, partially deaf joke of a sheriff (Copland) to have us sympathise with him. Whether he plays a heavyweight boxer with a shot at the title, a traumatised Green Beret encountering small-town bigotry, a haunted Rocky Mountain rescuer or an alcoholic detective in murderous rehab, the secret ingredient that Stallone always manages to sprinkle on top of each character that he plays is one that conspires to make us care about them. Frank Leone, posited as a typical everyman (if everyman had biceps like nuclear reactors, that is, and was banged-up for being a have-a-go-hero), is cultivated from exactly the same seed-pod as Rocky, Rambo, Gabe or John Spartan. Intensely down to earth and immediately charismatic, you know that he must prove himself in a variety of despicable situations if he is to go the distance. You know that he is going to have to be knocked down repeatedly until he finds the inner strength to finally rise to glory. I've often remarked upon Clint Eastwood's screen characters having to metaphorically “die” and be reborn in a sort of messianic evocation of retribution and, in a way, Stallone's endless wallowing in symbolic squalor and humiliation for what seems like an eternity, pre-victory, is the same sort of thing. He is always the good guy, the hero-saviour who not only fights for himself but for all of the downtrodden. Unlike Arnie or James Bond who are already massively removed from us from the get-go, Sly's heroes, as unfeasibly muscular as they may be, are inspirational tools manufactured purely to show that we should all fight against adversity. And, if anything, our goaded inmate is the most easy to identify with. Hell, even the crime that got him put away in the first place was an act of heroism. He's only on the inside because he tried to do the right thing. Hey, I know just how corny all of Leone's trials and tribulations are in Lock Up, and I totally agree that Sly could play this part in his sleep, but you'd have to be one of his staunchest detractors not to root for him every step of the way.

“You broke the law. You broke the law ... and I got punished!”

“I paid the price.”

“To the State! Not to me! But you will, Frank, and you're going to.”

Street-wise philosophy of the kind that Mickey would have preached to Rocky abounds. “Nothing's dead until it's buried,” Frank insists when Eclipse claims that his baby, Maybelline the busted V-8 pussy-wagon in the back of the motor-shop, will never run, which could easily be the code by which he, himself, is forced to live. DTA - Don't trust anybody - is another essential phrase in the convict's mental arsenal, although even Frank may run afoul of this one. When First Base belittles a con for his obsession with feeding the birds, Frank's swift lesson in tolerance is the easy assertion that “in here, that's all he's got” and “you've got to have something to keep you going,” which makes perfect sense and comes to play a pivotal role when First Base, during a bizarre fantasy cruising session around the machine-shop in the gleaming revitalised car, urges Frank to turn-over the engine of Maybelline, just for a second or two. “It'll last me forever, Frank,” he implores and it is impossible not to be swayed by such a genuinely touching moment. The film, therefore, nudges some authentic sentiment into the bone-breaking brutality of Leone's sentence. I cannot, though, be so forgiving to the rather trite and utterly gag-inducing “Don't mean nuthin'” gesture that he and Melissa have got going.

“We had a deal!”

“We don't make deals with escaping prisoners.”

Even though Lock Up is actually filmed in the real Rahway State Prison, New Jersey, with genuine inmates often filling the screen, the story is a complete and utter fantasy. As well as painting an incredibly bad picture of the US Prison Service and its penal system at large, the ongoing battle of wills between Drumgoole and Frank is stitched from the same cloth as the pantomime horse's costume. That this Warden can wield so much power that he can circumvent the wheels of justice and lord over his realm with a completely free hand is, indeed, a terrifying concept. Flynn manipulates the emotions very well despite the high-corn level of the material. For instance, the opening scenes of Frank and Melissa is so dreamy la-la, woozily saccharine and so twee that you just know that something dreadful has to happen. Thus, ten minutes in, when our boy is rudely awoken in his cell and violently hauled out into a waiting prison wagon for his enforced transfer, we truly feel as aggrieved and as shocked as he does. And likewise, we have affinity with each and every scenario that Leone undergoes. Kudos must go to the grim sequence when Frank is flung into the “Hole” for a long and wretched, mind-warping stint of isolation. Let's face it, there's only so many press-ups that you can do before your brain turns to mush. And the de-lousing procedure looks like the kind of torture you'd see in an early Bond film.

Regular composer for Stallone movies, Bill Conti, provides the typical Philly sound of heart and soul that populated the Rocky series, F.I.S.T., Escape To Victory (Stallone in the clink again) and Paradise Alley. Aside from a dodgy end credit soft rock ballad that sounds like it is sung by Sly's brother, Frank, the score is sombre and dark and propelled by a subdued rage. This said, Conti's main theme for the hero can also be beautifully blended into a bittersweet little piano melody that is, again, very evocative of Rocky's more reflective, soul-searching moments. But Conti punches it hard where it matters during the action scenes, twisting that hero theme into a rousing musical battle for the football game, and delivering a deep, primal barrage for Leone's skirmish with Chink and the blisteringly tense final act of I've gotcha now with the prison, itself, and with Drumgoole, especially.

You know exactly what you want, and what you are going to get with Lock Up, and it doesn't disappoint. Stallone is on top form as the put-upon but un-put-downable Frank Leone. The atmosphere of hostility and caged-rage is palpable and convincing. The violence, when it comes, explosive, nasty and, ultimately, cathartic. Stallone's 80's ethos was all about payback and honour. Lock Up embodies that perfectly and occupies a fine niche in the beefcake's career until he became the “human fly” for Renny Harlin in Cliffhanger. As such, Lock Up is probably only ever going to appeal to 80's action-junkies, and since you are one, yourself, if you've read this far, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. And I'm right there with you. Lock Up, as far as we are concerned, is awesome. Put it behind your bars now!



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