Olive Films // 1969 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // February 8th, 2011
Freedom...by any means necessary.
The prisoners from the isolation block of the Arizona State Penitentiary have planned a breakout. Led by "Big Red" (Gene Hackman, The French Connection), they overpower and lock up the guards, then set out to scale a wall, blow up some guard towers, and head off into the mountains.
Unfortunately, once the guards are overtaken, things fall apart. Some prisoners want to exact vengeance on the jailors, one guard needs medical assistance, and they don't have the gasoline they needed to burn the towers. So Red starts devising alternative plans. In the meantime, prisoner Cully Briston (Jim Brown, 100 Rifles), who only has a few years to go before parole, doesn't want to be part of the escape attempt, but he does want to make sure that things don't get out of control.
Riot looks like it should be prison exploitation heaven. It was produced by renowned schlockmeister William Castle (Homicidal) and co-starred action star Brown and "serious actor" Hackman, who was not above a little slumming even as he was appearing in prestige films like Bonnie and Clyde and I Never Sang for My Father. A prison breakout scenario is always rife with violence and chase scenes, and assuming the guys make it out, you know there'll be some wanton women waiting on the other side of the wall.
But Riot, as it turns out, isn't an exploitation film at all. It's not really an action film, either. It's an oddly talky drama with a soft center that doesn't have much of a story to tell. It was written by Oscar winner (Around the World in 80 Days) James Poe (who also wrote They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and The Gathering), based on a novel by Frank Elli, and directed by TV veteran Buzz Kulik (Brian's Song and Bad Ronald). The result is a film in which the battle between inmates and authority takes a backseat to the battle between schlock and serious.
The film opens with Cully being unfairly harassed and brought to the isolation cells by a bigoted guard. This is actually a ruse so the other inmates to commence the breakout. One small problem: Cully doesn't actually do anything to the guard. He doesn't call him names or act disrespectfully, so the idea that he's done a little instigating to get the break-out ball rolling doesn't ring true.
Next, we have Red laying out the plan, which involves scaling walls, firebombing guard towers, and so on. The problem is, we haven't actually seen the layout of the prison in any kind of meaningful way, so we really don't know what he's talking about. It sounds like a foolhardy idea, and when Cully tells him it's a foolhardy idea, we just have to take it on faith that Cully's right and Red's a bonehead. But Red's not supposed to be a bonehead; everything else he does in the film makes at least some kind of sense. It's just that his "big idea" of a break-out is undercooked.
Sooner than later, word gets out to the authorities, and Red and the boys find themselves face to face with sharpshooters. So, Red goes to Plan B (or C or D, things change pretty quickly in the first 20 or so minutes). He announces to the authorities that they're not planning a riot (first we've heard of this), merely a protest against poor conditions. Of course, this is just a smokescreen to cover up the break-out Red is really planning. Again.
From there, prisoners argue among themselves; prisoners try to get at the hostage guards; two prisoners with Justin Bieber haircuts dig a tunnel; everybody gets stoned on spiked apple jack; and the gay prisoners put on a drag show. It's like spring break in a bordertown with a marginally bloody denouement.
The whole film has a disconnected feel. It's like a sampling of stuff from old prison movies, updated with a few drag queens. There are long sequences in which the characters discuss the plans punctuated with the exploitation stuff needed to put together a trailer -- the drag show, some fights, and a brief fantasy in which Brown is airlifted to a resort filled with bikini-clad women. Since the escape plans are so vague, there's not a whole lot of tension as to whether or not the prisoners will succeed, and the little mini-dramas tend to just amble along.
Strangely, what we don't get is an actual riot. Technically speaking, the whole standoff qualifies as a riot, but when I'm watching a movie called Riot, I expect at least some fidelity to the old formula -- you know, "caged animal" types throwing tables, running through cell blocks, savaging guards, all that business. This is an action film with little in the way of action, and Kulik and Poe's apparent effort to make a "serious" statement about prison is just stilted.
The film looks very much like a TV drama from the era, flat and undistinguished, and Krzysztof Komeda's score sounds like it would be right at home on the small screen. The performances are all over the map. Brown's stalwart prisoner comes off as dull, while Hackman seems to have no handle on his character at all, substituting tics for characterization. Everyone else seems to have studied old Warner Bros. prison films or MGM musicals, with broad line readings the order of the day.
This disc is being released by Olive Films, which, like Legend Film a few years ago, has acquired the rights to some Paramount catalog titles. Like a Legend release, Riot comes with an acceptable tech presentation and zero supplements.
Riot is not a riot. A slow-moving, slightly incomprehensible drama that would have been "daring" if it had been made for TV, it's just a forgettable misfire.
Guilty. Back to isolation for all of you.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Olive Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated R