Skip to main content

This is hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour.

Lock Up
(1989)

Sylvester Stallone’s career was entering its first period of significant decline when Lock Up was flushed out at the tail end of his most celebrated decade. His resumé since Rocky includes a fair selection of flops, but he was never far from a return to the ring. Added to that, his star power had been considerably buoyed by a second major franchise in the form of John Rambo. For a significant chunk of the ‘80s he was unbeatable, and it’s this cachet (and foreign receipts) that has enable him to maintained his wattage through subsequent periods of severe drought. Lock Up came the same year as another Stallone prison flick, Tango & Cash, in which the actor discovered both his funny guy chops (resulting in an ill-advised but mercifully brief lurch in to full-blown comedy) and made a late stage bid to get in on the buddy cop movie formula (perhaps ego prevented him trying it before?) The difference between the two is vast. One is a funny, over-the-top, self-consciously bombastic affair where two stars bouncing barbs off each other with wild abandon. The other is formulaic garbage, without the common decency even to be embarrassed about its clichés. They’re strapped so securely to Lock Up’s chin, you’d swear this was a parody if it wasn’t all so damn earnest.


As dumb and corny as Lock Up is, I recalled it being fairly enjoyable for all its ham-fistedness. How could you go too far wrong pitting Stallone as the underdog, unjustly imprisoned (he was just defending his neighbourhood, like any good American would!), a model inmate (he’s occasionally allowed day release, and engages in a good, respectable blue collar activity; he fixes cars!), a loving boyfriend (the closest the movie gets to clever plotting is the ridiculously treacly opening in which Sly gets up, goes to work, meets his girlfriend and then gets dropped off.. at the slammer!) against the perfidiously evil Donald Sutherland? Stallone even enlists hardboiled director John Flynn to give this a bit of grit. So why is it lit like an ‘80s rock video?


The diligence of filming at an actual prison, with actual inmates as extras, comes to nought when storytelling is so pampered and overwrought. Sutherland, past his ‘70s leading man prime and now increasingly playing support or bad guys (although A Dry White Season also came out this year) is giving Warden Drumgoole exactly the kind of effort he deserves. He’s a one-dimensional cartoon villain who waxes lyrical about his prize electric chair (“Beautiful, isn’t it?”), extracts Sly’s Frank Leone from his minimum-security penitentiary and dumps him in mean and brutal Gateway (“The worst shithole in the system”) with only six months left on his sentence. The reason? Frank was not only the only man to escape from prison on Drumgoole’s watch five years earlier, he got the warden in trouble for his unwholesome practices. And now Drumgoole’s out for revenge, by any means possible. He’ll makes sure Frank spends the rest of his life in the nick. That’s right, Sutherland’s playing a complete nutter. There’s no point in blaming Donald for his performance (he was nominated for a Razzie for his pains, along with Sly and the film itself); he’s merely delivering an approximation of what’s on the page. When it comes to the big confrontation scene, predictably involving Drumgoole’s prize electric chair, the cheese is dribbling off the screen and carpeting the floor; there’s no room to spare for suspension of disbelief.


There’s an argument for this being one of those so-bad-it’s-good affairs, if you’re in the mood. Generally with such fare there is usually a thin line between entertainingly bad and tiresomely so; this drifts well over the negative side for me. I’m sure Stallone, with his variable self-awareness, thought he was making something with the kind of edge of Escape from Alcatraz (also filmed at the actual clink). Almost every choice here is horribly off. As soon as Bill Conti’s tinkly piano starts up over the opening credits we’re longing for Stallone to be incarcerated and something really nasty to happen, anything to make Bill stop. Lest we forget, Conti is responsible for the worst Bond soundtrack (For Your Eyes Only). His brand of maudlin mush is right up Stallone’s (Paradise) alley; he’s been something of a regular, scoring many of his movies including all but one of the Rockys. His music embodies a full-on assault on emotional restraint, of the sort no one should be made to endure. True to form, whenever Sly wistfully recalls life on the outside, and the girl he loves, in comes Conti plinking and plonking away like the wretched would-be manipulator of mucus-coated heartstrings that he is.


During the first third this actually does look like it might be of the dopily great persuasion, a pumped-up B movie revelling in its own stupidity. A line such as “This is hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour” deserves to be honoured in its own way. And the various nefarious methods of breaking down Frank have a similarly moustache-twirling glee. Leaving him too long in the de-lousing chamber, inveigling him into a particularly bone-crunching American Football game during which Flynn employs a succession of jump cuts as Frank has the ground repeatedly taken out from under him. Unfortunately, there’s a losing battle to unadulterated tripe going on. Frank mentors young inexperienced inmate First Base (Larry Romano). Despite this being prison, Frank has no untoward designs on his young friend (indeed, the pen seems remarkably chaste in that regard). He also makes pals with Eclipse (Frank McRae, best known as 48 Hrs’ exasperated police captain) and Dallas (Tom Sizemore). This was one of Sizemore’s first roles and he’s great, even if the looks like he was using even back then. He brings an energy and vitality to the wayward, hyperactive Dallas that blows everyone else off the screen. When you watch him, you could almost (only almost, mind) believe you’re watching a proper prison movie.


Together they all engage in a hilariously homoerotic car repair montage (remember that petrol pumps scene in Zoolander?) Spray-painting the Ford Mustang in slow motion, they soon begin spray-painting each other. Whoever would have believed prison could be so much fun? Or that you’d have the privilege of being left to your own devices, unsupervised, and surrounded by abundant supplies of potential weaponry? After First Base inadvisably takes the car for a spin (despite never having driven before, he proves to be a remarkably good driver; Frank, ever the monotone sentimentalist, precedes this by pushing him around the garage describing the sights of their make believe trip) in one of the picture’s goofiest scenes (which is saying something), the nasty Warden kills the car and puts Frank in isolation. By this point we’re beginning to see why the Warden is such a wanker. Frank really is intolerably upstanding.


On the bad guy front, Machete himself Danny Trejo is in there somewhere but I didn’t spot him. Main villainous muscle duties go to Sonny Landham (as “Chink” Weber). Landham had history with producers Larry Gordon (on 48 Hrs) but he is best known as Billy in Predator. Landham is a natural for this kind of thing, running around the prison yard yelling “You’re dead, Leoni!” Jordan Lund is a typically irredeemable prison guard who takes sadistic relish in every beating he doles out on Frank (you can guess what will happen to him) while John Amos fills out the character clichés as the harsh but fair prison captain.


By this point, Stallone must have been conscious he was about to be eclipsed by a pretender to his muscle-bound movie throne. There was no doubt Sly had ratcheted up the bigger hits, but Arnold Schwarzenegger was attracting more consistent audiences. This might explain the appallingly inappropriate one-liner (remember what I said about how earnest this is?) as Sly exclaims “Rape this!” when he takes a bit of lead piping to a guy’s groin, one who has just threatened his wife (he bears an uncanny resemblance to Sean William Scott). It’s the kind of woeful misjudgement that saw him deliver the humourless and quite unpleasant Cobra a couple of years previously. In contrast, Arnie’s bags of personality were more than made up for his lacking of acting skills. Stallone had famously passed on Beverly Hills Cop, but the reason that film was the film it was was purely down to Eddie Murphy. It was Stallone’s persona and approach that was dropping out of favour.


In ’87 Over the Top proved a major misfire when it woefully failed to bring family audiences to Stallone taking care of his sprog while engaging in a spot of arm wrestling (he should have had an animal sidekick instead). The following year, even the tried and tested wasn’t delivering. The hugely expensive Rambo III made only a third as much as its predecessor and put John in Afghanistan just as the Soviets were pulling out in the real world. Rocky V, the year after Lock Up, suggested that bottomless well had also run dry. Unfortunately Stallone took the wrong cues from the reaction to his bespectacled, besuited turn as Ray Tango, berating Kurt Russell’s Gabriel Cash for “bumping uglies” with his sister. The success of that picture was all about his chemistry with Russell, and his detour into comedy was met with complete disinterest by the public (Stallone can be funny, but he’s by no stretch of the imagination a comedy guy).


It wasn’t until four years later that he’d recover some ground (though nothing like the ‘80s) with Cliffhanger and Demolition Man. Lock Up finds Stallone adrift; as the Razzie nominations mounted up and he was parodied and pilloried left right and centre, audiences too backed away. A career like his looks much more like luck than judgement in retrospect; it’s why he’s been remarkably persistent. For all the times you’ve thought he’s done, he manages to rally himself. Even if currently that consists wholly of a reliance on the appetite for nostalgia of his ‘80s audience.


 *1/2



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.