“This is Hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour.”
There have been a lot of great prison and prison break films over the years. Who can forget Dustin Hoffman in Papillon or Clint Eastwood in Escape From Alcatraz? Of course, more recently we had The Shawshank Redemption. Lock Up won’t ever taste the rare air of those classic films. In fact, it’s not really a prison break film at all. There is an attempted break, but it’s not quite the focus of the film. I almost felt like I was watching the sequel to a break film. That’s because Lock Up deals with the aftermath of a prison break and shows us the consequences on both the escapee and the warden who was responsible for preventing said break. And that’s where I think this movie creates its own niche in the popular genre. It’s a unique film that might have left its most exciting moments in a past that we never got a chance to see.
Frank (Stallone) is a convict at a minimum-security prison in New Jersey. He had killed a man who was beating to death a helpless old man whom Frank admired. He is on good terms with both the prison guards and staff. He’s also friendly with his fellow inmates. He gets to leave on work release where he is preparing a garage he intends to open when he gets out in three weeks. He has a supportive fiancée. Everything appears to be going well for the man. That is, until he is shaken from his prison bed in the middle of the night by a team of gruff guards lead by Captain Meissner (Amos). With no explanation he is shackled and hurried onto a transport vehicle where he is taken to Gateway Prison. This isn’t the country-club atmosphere Frank’s spent the last few years serving his time in. This is a maximum security facility. It’s dirty and it’s violent. Frank can’t figure out what he did to deserve the transfer until he lays eyes on Warden Drumgoole (Sutherland). Drumgoole was the warden of a prison Frank first found himself in years before. The warden’s brutality caused Frank to plan and execute an escape. It was the first and only escape under Drumgoole’s watch. But it was enough to kill his budding career. He ended up at Gateway, or as he describes it, Hell. It is his intention to break Frank and provoke another escape attempt in order to keep him there for the rest of his life. Frank tries to keep his head down and get through the three weeks. It won’t be easy with Drumgoole on his back and another prisoner, Chink (Landham) who wants to kill him.
The best thing that Lock Up has going for it is an incredibly powerful cast. Stallone does what Stallone does best. He plays the mild tough guy who gets pushed into showing his angry side. Sly’s become a modern day Incredible Hulk. If you think about it, you’ll find the same pattern in both Rambo and Rocky. It’s the same here. Stallone has always been smart enough to make sure he was surrounded by great talent. Here that means Donald Sutherland as the ruthless and brutal Drumgoole. Where in the heck do they come up with these names? The first time we see Drumgoole in the dingy light of the prison entrance, we know he’s going to be trouble. Sutherland wears that hardened look as if it were his natural pose. This is a guy who was always cruel. Now he’s been embittered, and his cruelty has gone beyond anything short of psychopathic. He has prisoners killed without blinking an eye. He lets Frank and his friends toil over restoring a car in the prison garage, only to have it smashed while they are forced to watch when one of them gets carried away and takes it for a spin in the yard.
After Sutherland, you have to mention John Amos. This is not James Evans from Good Times. Yet he’s the most nuanced character in the film. When we first encounter Meissner, he’s dragging Frank out of his cell and getting in his face. This is a guard who is not afraid to give a beat down just on general principles. But it’s Meissner who begins to flinch at the level of brutality Drumgoole is willing to dispatch. It’s a great dynamic to see the warden’s evil reflected in the face of a man who isn’t afraid to get dirty himself. It’s when Meissner begins to have doubts that you truly see how bad Drumgoole is. It’s a clever device.
Finally, you have Frank’s fellow cons. Sonny Landham, who doesn’t need any help looking like a mean SOB, plays Chink, who has it in for Frank. Then there are Frank’s friends. Tom Sizemore plays Dallas, a bit of a slimy character who tries to be friends with Frank. He’s the insecure nervous type. Hey, talk about method acting. Sizemore liked playing an inmate so much that he decided to give the real thing a go for a while. Then there’s Frank McRae as Eclipse, the gentle big guy who has been there forever and runs the prison garage.
The final element to provide the film’s rather stark realism is the fact that it was filmed at a real East Jersey prison with over 2000 inmates housed where they filmed. Usually, a film like this finds an out-of-use prison. Give director John Flynn some credit for an exceptional location and a good job of pacing the film. It moves at a good steady clip. It’s absolutely worth at least a rental.
Lock Up is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of about 23 mbps. This isn’t a great film for high-definition upgrade. It’s very dark, so there isn’t much of any color in the film. Still, the image is sharp, allowing for more detail than I expected for a 1980’s film shot in such dank conditions. Black levels are solid and I can see how this film might have suffered from compression artifact when it was released on DVD. Here any worry about compression issues is not a problem.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does deliver where it counts, the dialog. The surrounds never get all that aggressive, but I rather like it when 5.1 mixes of stereo films aren’t monkeyed with all that much.
All of the standard definition retreads from the DVD are here: Making Of, Stallone Profile, and very brief interviews.
This is one of those Stallone films I missed somehow along the way. I wasn’t alone. The movie made a paltry $22 million at the box office. In spite of some great names in the cast, it seemed that audiences just weren’t that interested back in 1989. You can credit much of the film’s disappointing returns on Sylvester Stallone burnout. He was at the end of both the Rocky and Rambo films (before the recent revivals), and the films he had done in between were honestly not very good. Movies like Tango & Cash and Cobra seemed to suggest that Sly was just going for a paycheck between what he considered his “real” jobs. Looking back on the film now, I think it holds up as one of his better off the reservation films. It might be less filling, but “It tastes as good as any donkey wine I ever had”.