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Review: Lock Up (1989)

Lock Up (1989)

Directed by: John Flynn

Premise: A prisoner (Sylvester Stallone) nearing his release date is transferred to a maximum security facility run by a vicious warden (Donald Sutherland) with a vendetta.  

What Works: Lock Up is one of Sylvester Stallone’s underappreciated efforts from the 1980s. Although Stallone’s filmography is mixed, he is distinguished for making interesting choices as an actor and a filmmaker. Stallone is generally linked with the characters Rocky Balboa and John Rambo and although he certainly made a lot of those films (as well as a few knock offs) he also attempted to do other kinds of projects, directing movies like Staying Alive and co-writing the screenplay to F.I.S.T. The 1989 prison film Lock Up exists somewhere between the action oriented pictures that Stallone is usually associated with and his other, more dramatic work. This is a very good prison story, one of very real characters trying to survive in a difficult situation. The central cast of prisoners in Lock Up has lot of reality to them. Cast as Frank, Sylvester Stallone is very effective lead for the movie. Stallone was always at his best playing blue collar underdogs and that is precisely who Frank is but he is also a character that steers away from violence and confrontation, making this character unique in Stallone’s filmography. He just wants to get out, be with his girlfriend, and maintain a body shop and that desire for normalcy, rather than violent conquest, makes him a very sympathetic character. The rest of the main cast of inmates have a similar normalcy about them. Tom Sizemore is cast as the hyperactive busybody Dallas, Larry Romano plays the delinquent First Base, and Frank McRae fills the role of prison auto-body shop lead Eclipse. Each of these men are distinct and fully developed characters but it is Romano as First Base who makes the biggest impression. Because his character has been incarcerated at such a young age he elicits extra sympathy and the way the story and the actor establish First Base as a tough guy and then allow the character to gradually reveal himself is very well done. Lock Up includes similar gradation in the guards. Captain Meissner, played by John Amos, is first introduced as a fascistic antagonist but as the warden’s injustices against Frank begin to pile up the captain is gradually revealed to be a much more even handed figure. The humanity in the characters makes Lock Up much more interesting that the typical prison film and it gives the movie some depth as it deals with the complicated nature of power in a totalitarian system. Lock Up is also notable for its score by Bill Conti. Instead of going for the obvious kind of brooding sound that befits the surroundings, Conti’s score fills in the hope of these men and underlines the aspiration to maintain human dignity.

What Doesn’t: Lock Up owes a lot to 1974’s The Longest Yard, especially the football sequence and the conflict with the warden, played by Donald Sutherland. Frank and the warden do not come into direct conflict very much and the filmmakers do not get quite as much out of Sutherland as they might have. The film’s tone is uneven, with some scenes featuring brutal prison violence while scenes of fellowship among the prisoners are sometimes too soft for life inside a maximum security prison. The premise of the film itself is somewhat strange. Frank’s transfer from a minimum security facility to maximum security ought to arouse suspicion by higher authorities and it is strange that his girlfriend does not appeal to civil liberty advocates or other forms of oversight to protest his confinement. Parts of the movie also get somewhat silly, especially in the ending when the film goes for more typical action adventure thrills.

DVD extras: Featurettes, interviews, trailer.

Bottom Line: Lock Up is a very well made prison film and it is one of Sylvester Stallone’s better movies from the 1980s. It is recognizably an action picture from that period in both good and bad ways but it is very entertaining and the humanistic qualities of the picture make it stand out.

Episode: #464 (November 3, 2013)