Lock Up


Lock Up came out in 1989, but for much of its running time it feels like it could have been made at least 15 years earlier. Shot mainly on location at a real state prison (with real prison inmates serving as extras) in Rahway, New Jersey, it isn’t exactly gritty, but it’s convincing enough. Director John Flynn knew what kind of movie he was trying to make–a straightforward vehicle for star Sylvester Stallone, who was restlessly seeking new roles that would help sustain the first post- Rambo and Rocky stage of his career. And despite his relative anonymity in Hollywood, Flynn was a good pick for the project, having a body of work that included taut cult classics like the 1970s pulp adaptation The Outfit (featuring Robert Duvall as Donald E. Westlake’s favoured screen version of his iconic Parker character) and the revenge drama Rolling Thunder (with William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones as Vietnam vets tracking down a gang of small-time thugs), as well as 1987’s critically acclaimed Best Seller, starring James Woods and Brian Dennehy. Flynn earned a journalism degree from UCLA, and his deceptively simple directorial style evinces what strike me as sound reportorial instincts: he finds the kernel of every scene and assembles the fewest and least fussy shots required to get the point across.

As Lock Up begins, protagonist Frank Leone (Stallone) is enjoying a furlough with girlfriend Melissa (Darlanne Fluegel) before returning to serve out the final few months of his term in a minimum-security prison. In a first-act twist, he’s abruptly rounded up and transferred to Gateway, a maximum-security slammer, where he’s subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Whatever serious message may have been in mind about the dehumanizing and counter-productive nature of the American carceral system dissipates hopelessly with the introduction of Gateway’s villainous Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland), who promises Frank, “This is Hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour.” A quick exposition dump conveys the backstory: Frank is a veritable Boy Scout who earned his first rap defending his mentor, an old mechanic named Galleti, from a gang of street punks connected to the mob. While he was in jail, it was Drumgoole himself who denied him one measly hour of leave to visit the old man on his deathbed; Frank embarrassed the warden badly by escaping from custody. Frank earned an additional stint in the clink for his escape. Now, Drumgoole intends to engineer a scenario that will keep him behind bars for decades or ensure his death in prison.

Another of Flynn’s talents is casting, and Lock Up‘s ensemble works hard to freshen up the script’s men-in-prison clichés. I can’t say Stallone gives much of a performance, but he’s pretty good, if understated, in the central role. I liked the scene where he first shows up at Gateway and sizes up the surly, threatening mood in the yard–a sharp contrast from his previously cushy prison digs. He looks like a man who is trying to maintain a poker face, who knows this is just how it’s gonna be, yet can’t quite hide the concern in his eyes. There’s a bit of sadness there, as well. As a man in love, Frank has a vulnerability–a disadvantage in an environment full of high-stakes macho aggression–and, despite his best efforts, that subtly crestfallen demeanour telegraphs his ultimate weakness. John Amos, rocking a pair of cool-ass eyeglasses throughout, walks a fine line in his portrayal of Captain Meissner, who introduces himself to inmates by declaring, “One, I am Meissner. Two, don’t fuck with Meissner.” Amos has to show Meissner playing by the book but also rueing Drumgoole’s cruelty, making him a potential ally for Frank in the film’s third act. Tom Sizemore makes his big-screen debut here as the motor-mouthed Dallas, who sees an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the new guy as soon as Leone shows up. Frank McRae plays Eclipse, gate-keeper of the prison’s auto body shop, who eventually welcomes Leone into his band of merry mechanics. There’s also Larry Romano (in his second appearance) as a 20-year-old inmate the other guys call First Base. When First Base complains that he never learned to drive (this may be a sexual metaphor), Frank keeps pace next to his car, talking to him through the window as the kid does slow circles around the garage, pretending he’s cruising Times Square. And then there’s the bad guy, an inmate called Chink (Sonny Landham, Billy Bear from 48Hrs.), who takes a direct interest in ruining Frank’s life. No less menacing a personage than Danny Trejo puts in a brief but unmistakable appearance as a member of Chink’s gang.

I was expecting to find Lock Up to be more or less detestable, given its dismal critical reputation even among Stallone fans. (Men’s Health ranked it in the bottom 15% of Stallone’s oeuvre.) But it’s surprisingly easy to take. The worst I can say about it is that the first two acts are positively riddled with prison-movie clichés, though they play out in a surprisingly comfy fashion. After Chink tries to shiv Frank in the prison yard, Frank denies that anything happened, telling the earnest, incredulous guard (William Allen Young) who witnessed the attack, “You’ve got your rules, we have ours.” Naturally, there’s a bruising, full-contact football game in the prison mud, where Frank wins the respect of Eclipse by efficiently quarterbacking the pigskin downfield. The scene is sort of perfunctory, but it’s still well- staged and choreographed, with bodies flying through the air and Stallone visibly doing his own stuntwork. Since this is a prison movie, Frank eventually gets “six weeks in the hole” as punishment for a minor transgression, and Flynn gets it just right, spending enough time in solitary to suggest the toll it takes on Frank’s mind and body without dwelling on it or losing forward momentum. (Alas, Frank’s ability to maintain his de rigueur five o’clock shadow throughout the ordeal goes unaddressed.) There’s even a musical interlude where Frank and his prison buddies bring a ’65 Ford Mustang back to life in an Inspirational Montage set to the old funk-rock hit “Vehicle” by The Ides of March before cheerfully singing a song of their invention with lyrics inviting the warden to kiss their cold, dead asses. The overt demonstration of manly camaraderie put me in mind, sort of, of Howard Hawks, and I smiled despite the silliness of it all.

It’s too bad the third act is a real yawner, working up a head of generic action as Frank assays another disappearing act after hearing that Melissa herself might be a target. In an interview with Shock Cinema, Flynn remembered that shooting on Lock Up took place on an accelerated timetable to fit Stallone’s schedule, with co-screenwriters Jeb Stuart (Die Hard) and Henry Rosenbaum overhauling what Flynn called a “terrible script” (apparently contributed by the late Richard Smith, receiving his one and only film credit) page by page as shooting proceeded, the writers occasionally falling behind the production. That helps explain the derivative, highly episodic nature of the screenplay, yet there’s a bigger problem here. Because Lock Up has taken pains to explain why Frank Leone is a good guy despite deserving two arguably unjust prison sentences, its climax relies on his success at getting out of prison on schedule and according to the rules so that he can reunite with his lady and live happily ever after. Then again, because Lock Up is an action programmer that gets its charge out of making Warden Drumgoole such a despicable character, it also relies on Leone’s ability to exact revenge on an appropriate scale. And there’s the rub: If Frank so much as pops Drumgoole a good one on the nose, it beggars belief that his reward would be anything but an extended prison sentence with more opportunities for misery and death. The screenwriters attempt to thread the needle here with an unlikely, overheated climax that eventually argues for justice as better payback than revenge. I hate to say it since I respect the impulse, but Lock Up needed a much more ingenious denouement if it really wanted Frank to come out on top without getting his hands dirty. It’s an impossible set-up with an unconvincing, unsatisfying result.

Lionsgate brings Lock Up to UHD BD in another in a series of handsome new 4K transfers of StudioCanal library titles. My initial reaction was a spoken “Uh-oh,” as the very first shots are lousy with waxy foreground textures and lifeless backgrounds, the hallmarks of aggressive noise reduction. Once the (lengthy) opening credits were finished, it was as if everything suddenly snapped into focus, with plenty of picture detail and varying amounts of crisp film grain. Grain may actually be somewhat over-emphasized by the 4K Dolby Vision treatment, but it remains pleasing throughout and rarely detracts from the thoroughly film-like appeal of the imagery–except in a few scenes, like the one 17 minutes in where Stallone is blasted with gas in a delousing chamber and certain shots disintegrate in a noisy smear of compression artifacts. The image overall is high in contrast, thanks again to the extended range of the HDR format, with deep blacks and especially vivid skin tones. Dust and dirt are virtually absent and any more troublesome problems with the source material have been dealt with adequately; only occasional visible scratches, subtle flickers, or variations in density suggest print flaws. While there aren’t a lot of HDR-ready specular light effects, the image gets an overall boost from the expanded contrast and colour, especially in scenes with both shadowed and brightly lit elements in the frame. The cinematography of Donald E. Thorin (Thief) is mostly appropriately unshowy and unobtrusive, although he stretches out in a few scenes–like the one where First Base runs into trouble in the prison gym–that conjure an especially moody, peak-1980s atmosphere, featuring bright shafts of light piercing the darkness. This transfer captures every nuance.

I’m not quite as keen on the audio, which reworks the theatrical Dolby Stereo mix (not included) for 5.1 discrete channels. The center channel is the workhorse, as it should be, with the front left and right speakers coming into play mainly for directional effects, such as crowd noises and the like. Bill Conti’s score is the dominant element in the surrounds. Gut punches and other body-blows get a bit of low-frequency wallop, but the crucial dialogue tracks are a little thin. (It doesn’t help that a lot of line readings were apparently overdubbed–there are audible differences in recording quality between deliveries.) Though not bad by any means, the mix as presented here feels overly bright, and the dialogue and sound effects don’t have a lot of presence.

The extra features look good on paper but don’t add up to much. Essentially, what you get is the film’s vintage EPK (upscaled from SD to 1080p), for better or worse. Kicking things off, a miniature making-of featurette (7 mins.) comprises behind-the-scenes footage and vintage interviews with Stallone, Fluegel, Sutherland, Landham, and Amos. Much of the footage depicts production at East Jersey State Prison, whose administrator, John Rafferty, appears on screen to declare that the filming “is going to make the cold months go by a little quicker for us.” A second featurette (3 mins.) centres on Stallone, who talks at some length about his work–his attention to character, his desire to perform his own stunts, etc. Also on board is the full collection of raw B-roll (8 mins.) the other two featurettes draw from, including footage of Stallone coordinating fight scenes, John Amos signing autographs, and the like.

Although no fewer than five interviews are bullet-pointed on the back of the box, the other four–with Sutherland, Landham, Amos, and Fluegel–clock in at well under a minute each, far below the length of the Stallone Q&A. These are the same interviews drawn on for the making-of featurette, so you won’t miss much if you skip just one or the other. Sutherland gets a bare 20 seconds of screen time, although I felt that his abbreviated take on his character as a man who had his “whole life…ruined” after being “outwitted and humiliated” by a mere convict helped explain Sutherland’s own curiously reserved, low-key performance. His Drumgoole is not angry so much as ashamed. The last feature is an original Lock Up trailer (2:23) upscaled to 1080p, while the packaging itself contains a BD and a download code alongside the UHD BD platter.

This review originally appeared at Film Freak Central.

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