Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lockout Review - it... actually works

I can't believe it. This film had a trailer that I only watched because I like Guy Pearce a lot (Memento!). The trailer's set up to give you a guy that's basically Snake Plissken from John Carpenter's excellent Escape From New York - a bloodier version of the Marlboro man. Y'know, man at his most... Man.

It also gives Pearce a filthy mouth and a mean sense of humor. The trailer was genuinely fun - watch it for yourself: 

But, of course, this kind of movie isn't meant to be any good, right? It'll probably work on some half-camp level, but the dialogue will suck really really badly. Some performer may overact so much (or be so flat) that it ruins every scene. The fx might be kind of shoddy, or you won't have distinct characters that evoke any feeling from you, much less sympathy or concern.

So what the hell happened? Lockout was...not bad. In fact, it was... just fine(?)! Lockout was entertaining?! It would have been very easy to misstep with this story and these types of characters; the directors (James Mather and Stephen St. Leger) managed it perfectly well. I was going to cover this movie as part of an MRQ, but this is so rare nowadays that it deserves to be reviewed on its own.

Why is it so rare? Because the filmmakers used exactly the kind of roles, plot progression, and pace to make this motion picture work. Let's be blunt: if you see a movie called House of the Dead, the title itself says you're in for a cheesy B-horror movie, cheap fun. Without a "serious" director or writer attached - Fincher, Aronofsky, Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman, Joss Whedon - you're even more prepared for a low-stakes, low-expectations entertainment.

However, if you actually saw Uwe Boll's House of the Dead, then you know that no expectations were low enough to prepare you for the limp material that you actually got. Even major motion pictures with a great cast (e.g., Enemy at the Gates, Splice) - or even decent casts (e.g., Transformers) - can fail to tell a good, exciting story. Truly, there is no such thing as a guarantee of quality.

All of this makes a movie like Lockout into a full-blown slam-bang success. I will use spoiler-ish clips here, but only because I don't think you'd watch it otherwise... So - what's the story?

Well, Snow (Guy Pearce) is a government agent/soldier who in the year 2070. He meets with a Colonel who's a long-time friend and superior. Unfortunately, his superior is dying, and has only a few moments to hand Snow a briefcase and a lighter, urging him to discover who has betrayed them and why.

Of course, this does not go smoothly. Snow run from the room - and several people chasing him - and is captured in a subway station. Sure, he managed to toss the metal case onto a train where his friend is waiting, but Snow now finds himself in the custodial interrogation of the Secret Service. And Snow is being accused of killing the man he tried to save.

In short order, Snow is summarily sentenced to being imprisoned on the latest/greatest prison - an orbiting space station that keeps criminals in suspended animation for the length of their punishment. While all this is happening, Emilie (Maggie Grace from Lost), the President's daughter is onboard that station. She's trying to figure out if the prisoners are being mistreated, but she finds herself in the middle of a massive jailbreak.

Snow, however, has convinced Harry (the magnificent Lennie James), one of the higher-ups, that the Colonel's death is more complicated than it seems. Harry volunteers Snow for the mission, offering him no prison time in exchange for saving the only thing they care about - Emilie. And so this jaded, foul-mouthed, super-soldier sets out to rescue the girl - and find that friend of his from the train, who is now trapped on the space station as well.

With all the pieces in place, I can tell you that Lockout is exactly what it sounds like: Escape From New York meets Star Wars 4. The assembled cast and crew execute this idea to perfection. Emilie is the perfect damsel-in-distress who is both (a) strong and (b) extremely ungrateful. Meanwhile, Snow is running on the Snake Plissken school of being a total hard-edged jerk whose only focus is his mission.

Throughout the running time, the audience moves from one scene to another - each one does a good job of defining the roles while progressing the plots. The special effects, violence, and action are all visceral and well-done. The dialogue - usually the biggest flaw in these kinds of movies - lets you know exactly what you need to know, while doing service to (again) the characters and plots.

The result was, firstly, that I enjoyed myself far more than I expected to. Yet, when I stopped to think about what I had seen, I was also truly amazed that this picture presented an exciting, entertaining tale with strong characters. Big Trouble in Little China is a personal favorite of mine; so is Tango & Cash. I can't pretend either one is an exceptional contribution to film narrative. But I can say that I had a good time watching them, and never felt insulted or annoyed, much less like I'd wasted my time and money.

Maybe I just enjoyed that the main bad guys were Scottish, not Aussie/English, as so often occurs in movies set in the future. Maybe I just enjoyed Guy Pearce being a badass jerk for more than an hour. Or maybe I just enjoyed being pleasantly-surprised so much by a flick that often plays out like a video game...

For a futuristic prison breakout/rescue film, there is no reason for Lockout to have showed such a steady and smart use of tone. As an under-the-radar picture with a pure action premise, Lockout had no reason to be so solid, for it have worked so well. And, as a man who's walked away from some decent movies feeling deeply-disappointed, I had no reason to except to feel so satisfied by this experience.

I don't know if what I've written can make you interested in the unqualified success of Lockout. If nothing else, I can say that its creators should definitely get more opportunities to tell stories on film. They showed themselves capable of crafting a perfectly-serviceable-if-ridiculous story and turning it into an engaging action picture with real stakes. Many lesser films can't generate tension, but this one does.

In a day and age where most Tim Burton movies don't interest me at all, this is an incredible accomplishment. I suggest you catch this pic on Netflix Instant, whenever you next feel in the mood for some high-quality, but mindless, fun.

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