Lionsgate // 1989 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 19th, 2010
Stallone...behind bars? Not for long.
It's tempting to lump Sylvester Stallone in with other '80s action movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal. Many of Stallone's flicks are certainly as cartoonish as any of the escapist foolishness put out by those one-time box office giants. But Stallone was always capable of more nuance than any of his competitors. In addition to off-the-hook super-heroics, he was capable of delivering old school action-dramas that were solidly written and performed. Rocky and First Blood are perhaps the most notable of the more restrained and dramatically resonant efforts by Sly. Directed by John Flynn (Out for Justice), 1989's Lock Up is Stallone's attempt to return to real drama and character after a string of live-action testosterone-fueled cartoons that included Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rocky IV, Cobra, Over the Top, and Rambo III.
Lock Up concerns one-time New Jersey mechanic Frank Leone (Sylvester Stallone, First Blood), who is nearing the end of his nickel term at Treadmore Prison when he's transferred without warning to maximum security Gateway Prison, a joint loaded with murderers, rapists, and other hard cases. Leone learns that the transfer was the work of Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland, The Dirty Dozen), who was in charge of Treadmore until Leone escaped in order to attend his mentor's funeral. Leone's handiwork landed Drumgoole in disciplinary hot water and resulted in his reassignment to Gateway. Determined that Leone will never leave prison, Drumgoole sics vicious prison guards and a badass inmate named Chink Weber (Sonny Landham, Predator) on Frank in an effort to provoke him into an escape attempt that will automatically add ten years to his current term. Leone is resolute in maintaining his good behavior so that he can return to his wife. Inside Gateway, he earns the respect of the other inmates and builds friendships with Dallas (Tom Sizemore, Saving Private Ryan), a slippery con capable of acquiring any kind of contraband; Eclipse (Frank McCrae, Licence to Kill), who is in charge of the jail's auto shop; and First-Base (Larry Romano, The King of Queens), a kid doing a life term on a murder charge. The four inmates spend their days refurbishing a Ford Mustang they lovingly name Maybelline. With only three weeks left before he's to be set free, Frank is pushed to the breaking point when Chink's goons target First-Base and a prison guard threatens to rape and murder his wife. The question is, how can Frank kick ass without condemning himself to a lifetime in the joint?
The first two acts of Lock Up play out as an effective, if predictable, prison drama. It has all of the major hallmarks of jailhouse pictures: a corrupt and menacing warden, abusive guards, a roughneck con who owns the yard, an easily victimized young man fresh to the joint, the guy who can get prisoners anything they want from the outside, and the seasoned lifer doing his time in relative peace. There are even scenes in which the characters gamble for cigarettes, and play a muddy, violent, and action-packed game of football. Stallone capably leads an ensemble cast that delivers strong, believable performances, for the most part. Frank McCrae is appropriately avuncular as the seasoned prisoner who at first doesn't want the potential controversy that surrounds Leone, and then warmly passes on wisdom meant to keep Frank out of trouble until his debt to society is paid. Playing an aggressive con who rules the prison yard with mean eyes and a mighty stature is no stretch for Sonny Landham. We have no problem accepting that he'd be capable of intimidating Stallone's regular Joe character. As Landham's opposite number, John Amos (Die Hard 2: Die Harder) plays the tough-as-nails captain of the guards who slowly warms to Leone's dignified determination to walk the straight-and-narrow despite the forces aligned against him at Gateway. Donald Sutherland chews scenery admirably and with relish as the morally repugnant Warden Drumgoole. The weak links in the cast are Tom Sizemore, who annoys in his jittery, obnoxious, fast-talking turn as conman Dallas, and Larry Romano who is so full of feigned Brooklyn bluster as Lock Up's young meat prisoner that he seems like a stray Sweat Hog who wandered in from the set of Welcome Back Kotter. Romano's best scenes are opposite Stallone, proving that Sly is a much more capable actor than he's generally given credit for. Indeed, his performance as Frank Leone across the first two-thirds of the movie is understated and entirely sympathetic. We like Frank and genuinely feel his peril. It's too bad that Act Three fails to deliver a pay-off worthy of Stallone's work in the earlier part of the movie.
Lock Up spends most of its running time putting the screws to Frank Leone, stripping him of options and pushing him inexorably into a no-win situation. After moving steadily toward the sort of tragic ending that was practically de rigueur in genre pictures during the anti-authoritarian New Hollywood period of the late '60s and early '70s (think Cool Hand Luke), Lock Up abruptly shifts gears into cartoon violence, contrived turns of plot, and an absurdly tidy ending that betrays Frank Leone's resolute self-control throughout the previous hour of the movie. After nearly a decade of gargantuan box office receipts delivered by a shirtless, ripped, and oiled Stallone providing audience catharsis through simplistic (though often awesome) acts of extreme violence, Lock Up's makers apparently decided that audiences would reject a movie headlined by Sly that didn't end in ass-kicking, so they opted to punk out and undermine the movie's drama in favor of the sort of revenge climax exemplified in the final acts of the lesser Rambo flicks. It's a disappointing turn of events because, with a different finale, Lock Up could've been a competent if predictable prison drama -- no great shakes, perhaps, but a satisfying diversion. Instead, it's a forgettable blend of prison flick and '80s action clichés.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray upgrade of Lock Up presents the movie in a surprisingly satisfying 1080p transfer at its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The image isn't perfect, but it's better than many of the high definition transfers I've seen of other movies from the same era. Color reproduction is natural and accurate, with strong and subtle black levels. Detail in close-ups is often excellent, revealing every crag and pore in actors' faces. Medium and long shots aren't as impressive, but they still top anything that a standard definition presentation can deliver.
The DTS-HD Master Audio presentation of the movie's audio track is a decent reproduction of a limited source. Dialogue is consistently clean and discernible, though far from full-bodied. Music (by Rocky composer Bill Conti) and effects are slightly more expansive than the dialogue, but suffer to an extent from the source's cramped dynamic range.
The supplements are all ports from the 2007 DVD: vintage making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, a text-based profile of Stallone, some brief cast interviews, and a trailer for the film. None of it is noteworthy.
Lock Up is a movie severely compromised by the action convention expectations that accompanied Sylvester Stallone's formidable box office image in the 1980s. But even if the movie didn't devolve into an orgy of violence and mayhem, it wouldn't be much more than a rip-off of much better prison classics like Cool Hand Luke and The Birdman of Alcatraz.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Actor Profile