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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delightsmay well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vie…

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…