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.