From here on out, I’m just going to refer to LOCKOUT by my preferred title of SPACE PRISON, if you don’t mind too much. LOCKOUT sounds like a G.I. Joe code name, and a movie as brashly, brutishly high-concept as this one demands to be named as on-the-snout as possible.
Now, I am aware of the growing internet groundswell choosing to refer to SPACE PRISON as “SPACE JAIL“, but A) us hardened ex-cons know there’s a big difference between prison and jail and we hope decent people like you never need to learn it, and B) I’m glad to see people discovering this movie via its current status on Netflix Instant, but I still have my ticket stub from paying hard-earned cash to see it in the theaters. That’s after seeing it at a press screening. Twice on the big screen. In other words: Fuck you, I was here first.
I loved the movie, by the way. It’s the right kind of stupid. I know it can get confusing, but when I call a movie “stupid” it’s not always a putdown (or a lockout.). In local parlance here in the multiplexes of New York City where I operate, to exclaim “Yo that shit is stupid, son!” does indeed imply that a movie has some inherent stupidity, which SPACE PRISON has in abundance, but it also connotes that said stupidity is very enjoyable, which SPACE PRISON also is.
SPACE PRISON was co-written and directed by the team of Saint + Mather, otherwise known as the Irish filmmakers Stephen Saint-Leger and James Mather, who got hired off the strength of their nifty short film, PREY ALONE. The man who hired them, basically, was Luc Besson, the writer-director who has made action films as influential as LA FEMME NIKITA and LÉON (THE PROFESSIONAL) but has had an even more prolific career as a producer of films of drastically varying quality, including TAKEN, COLUMBIANA, the DISTRICT 13 movies, the TRANSPORTER movies, and Tommy Lee Jones’ THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA. (!!!) Here Besson wrote the script with Saint + Mather based on his original idea, which, as you can tell from the title I am insisting on, SPACE PRISON, is about a space prison. The idea is that in the near future, the nation’s worst criminals are put into cryo-sleep and stored about a facility which orbits the Earth. When they get woken up and abduct a member of the Presidential family, the last-ditch effort of the authorities in charge is to send in a lone man, a specialist, to get in and get out.
Call it STAR WARS meets HBO’s OZ. Call it DEMOLITION MAN meets ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK [In Space]. Just don’t call it late for dinner. This movie is hungry and what it likes best to eat is scenery. In a lighter-hearted turn than he usually gets to take, Guy Pearce (LA CONFIDENTIAL, MEMENTO, THE PROPOSITION) is a lot of fun as a cantankerous rogue named Snow, which I think is the Eskimo word for “Snake Plisskin.” Snow is a captive of the future government, wrongfully imprisoned, about to be shipped off-planet to a state-of-the-art jail in Earth’s orbit. You can tell he doesn’t play by the rules because he wears a T-shirt that reads “Warning: Offensive” and he sneers a lot.
Not a lot of movie action heroes would be caught dead wearing a novelty T-shirt, but I guess on the sliding scale of novelty T-shirts, “Warning: Offensive” is a touch witter than “I’m With Stupid” and a touch classier than “I Fucked Your Girlfriend.”
So this guy Snow is introduced as he’s being beat up by police-state thugs. That’s the title sequence, for the record. Every time Snow takes a punch, his head drops out of frame, and then another screen credit comes up. How can you not immediately warm up to a movie that starts that way?
Elsewhere, while Snow is taking his lumps, the plot starts happening. The President’s daughter (Maggie Grace from TAKEN) is making a standard publicity visit to the Space Prison. When one escapes and frees the others and she’s taken hostage by armies of belligerent convicts, that’s when her dad, Liam Neeson, springs into action. He has a very particular set of skills, skills he has acquired over a very long career…
…Sorry, wrong Luc-Besson-produced movie.
No, instead, Snow’s adversary, Langral, agrees to send Snow on a suicide mission to infiltrate the Space Prison as the inmate he was slated to be anyway, and instead bring Future Chelsea back to safety. This standard officious-prick character, apparently a Southerner, is played by all-purpose-European Peter Stormare, a great character actor whose strength is not accents. Hey wait:
Somebody asked Peter Stormare to do a Southern accent for this movie.
Somebody asked Londoner Idris Elba to do a Southern accent in PROMETHEUS.
Neither Southern accent is a good fit.
Guy Pearce is in both movies.
Anyway, when it comes to SPACE PRISON I know you guys are still stuck on thinking about ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but let me just tell you that this guy Snow escapes from New York in the first ten minutes of the movie. See? Totally different. He gets on board the Space Prison and almost immediately gets into a zero-gravity fight scene that actually reminded me a lot of that “Burp, Charlie! Burp!” routine from WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
That’s the thing about this movie, for everything that feels a bit fresh about SPACE PRISON — such as the “voice sensor” grenades which are throwable explosives that are sound-activated (like the Clapper!) — there’s an equal and opposite moment that feels like a blatant and occasionally bizarre reference to a movie you’ve seen many times already. If you watch SPACE PRISON expecting it to be as hardcore serious and straight-up badass as ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK or DIE HARD or NO ESCAPE or LOCK-UP or any of the other cool movies it owes a beer to, you’ll see it as a missed opportunity. It’s such a silly movie that as long as you’re willing to go with the silliness, you’ll have fun.
I mean, let’s talk about the villains. They’re supposed to be these horrible felons, the worst of the worst, murderers and rapists, but at the same time everyone cracks jokes as if they they share ghost-writers with Dane Cook. All of the bad guys look like they come from that Marvel Comics storyline back in the 1990s where all the X-Men had tattoos and scars and everybody carried guns and knives.
Meanwhile, the main bad guy, “Alex”, looks like that hilariously awful X-Men character Cable.
Even Guy Pearce looks like he was drawn by Todd McFarlane or something in this movie. He looks like he was redrawn to look like Brad Pitt, or like Liev Schreiber (but only Liev Schrieber as “Sabretooth” in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE).
Check it out — there are literally a couple of scenes where you can see Guy Pearce thinking, “I’ve uttered words written by Brian Helgeland, the Nolan brothers, and bloody Nick Cave, and now… I’m not doing that at all. Fuck it. Gonna have some fun with it.”
SPACE PRISON is an enjoyable, energetic, good-looking movie, and I had a good time, but let’s face it, there’s a climactic scene where the main characters literally jump out of space and land safely on what looks for all the world like the Santa Monica Freeway. (The story started out in New York, remember?) It’s a very, very stupid movie.
In the press notes for the movie, Stephen St. Leger talks about Billy Wilder being a pivotal influence on the interplay between Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace, and also says that “The relationship between Emilie and Snow brings to mind Bogart and Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEN. In other words, two polar opposites who are forced to get along.” Which is great. Even the press notes are stupid. To watch SPACE PRISON, you’d have guessed they had John Carpenter on the brain, but it turns out it was John Huston all along.
But hey, they can’t all be THE AFRICAN QUEEN. Not even the ones that apparently wanted to be.
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