I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Fortress

tn_fortressFORTRESS is one of those rare b-movie (or B+ movie?) gems that you come across every once in a while that has everything: good cast, great gimmicks, unexpected emotion and substance, cyborgs. It’s a 1993 sci-fi action movie, but clearly without a summer blockbuster budget, so it feels somewhere between Paul Verhoeven and ROBOT JOX. And that makes sense, because it’s the same director. Man, why did I never see this before? Didn’t I know it was a Christopher Lambert movie directed by Stuart Gordon? Don’t I believe in the auteur theory?

Lambert plays Brennick, an ex-soldier (“the most decorated captain of the Black Berets, yet you quit in disgrace…”) busted with his pregnant wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) trying to sneak out of the country because it’s illegal to give birth twice. They both end up at the Fortress, a giant underground, privately owned prison. The convicts become property of the Men-Tel Corporation and used for prison labor. Their job: to keep building further into the ground, making more room for more convicts to build even further. That’s my favorite concept in the movie because it so deviously illustrates the problem of the prison industrial complex. Zed-10, the computer program that runs the place (voice of the director’s wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), keeps saying the Men-Tel slogan “Crime does not pay.” But of course for them it does.

Brennick gets crowded into a tiny laser-barred cell with four other inmates: big, bald, rape-threatening bully Stiggs (the late Tom Towles of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER fame), long-haired ex-hippie-ish tech genius D-Day (Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs), wise elder Abraham (Lincoln Kilpatrick, THE LOST MAN, THE OMEGA MAN, MASTER GUNFIGHTER), and newbie pretty boy Nino (Clifton Collins Jr. in his first major movie role, and credited as Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez).

They’ve all been force-fed a metal device so they can be “intestinated” if they step over the line. I mean that literally – if they cross a yellow line it’s intense pain, red line and their stomachs explode. Of course this is going to have to become a prison escape movie, so part of the fun is the futuristic ways our hero gets painted into a corner. How the hell is he gonna get past this? And the way he does it is clever, disgusting and cool. (I’ll give away one part: when they get those things out of their guts they use them as explosives.)

mp_fortressMeanwhile, ROBOCOP‘s Kurtwood Smith is Prison Director Poe, the asshole overseer. He finds new forms of stalking when he electronically monitors Brennick’s sex dreams and falls for his wife. Zed-10 gives Poe a bunch of shit about watching dreams for pleasure, saying it’s unprofessional, and he says “This is a fascinating dream, very instructive about the prisoner’s psychology.” It’s all research, you know, just like his live feed of Karen in the shower.

Since I’m familiar with both Smith’s work playing villains and the cliche of the evil warden I was surprised when I started to realize that this mean-spirited creepo is also a tragic figure. He forces Brennick’s wife to come live in his apartment with him in trade for stopping horribly torturing her husband. Terrible. But then we find out that he’s “enhanced,” he absorbs amino acids through tubes to be “more efficient,” and this is also what happens to the prisoner’s babies. He tries to make a deal with her where he will raise her baby and not let him be enhanced, and you can tell that in his mind he’s being really generous and gentlemanly by offering that.

When he tries to go off script, though, he finds out he’s powerless. Zed-10 won’t go along with it. If he tries to leave it tells him he’s property of the Men-Tel Corporation. When Brennick has a gun on him and he tries to stop his threatened surgery on Karen he can’t even do it because Zed tells him “Men-Tel will not negotiate during a hostage situation.” He doesn’t ever turn into a cool guy or anything, but it’s sad to hear an adult man say to an adult woman something as pathetic as “Zed warned me our relationship wasn’t in the best interests of Men-Tel. I ignored her. Foolish me.”

There are four credited writers, and none of them have many other credits except for one did a bunch of TV, mostly Diagnosis: Murder. This surprises me because I think they put together a great script for this type of movie. It just keeps adding new ideas and developments as it goes along, and each of the characters has an arc. For example the bully Stiggs gets put in his place and has to learn to be nice, this causes D-Day to stop being a wimp and stand up for himself (and SPOILER die heroically hitting the ‘Enter’ key on a day-saving computer hack), and Brennick’s influence eventually convinces Abraham (who gets treated a little better because he works as Poe’s faithful servant) to risk everything to rebel.

When they make their escape all the sudden there’s some armoured cyborg guys called “Strike Clones” who come after them who are cool enough that I thought “Where’d they get the budget for these guys all the sudden?” D-Day checks out their head-wiring admiringly and says “The shit they’re comin up with these days!” But they’re not just cool looking, they’re also the answer to what happens to the babies. Man, this company really knows how to capitalize on all their resources.

The cyborgs have cannons for hands so Brennick cuts off one’s arm with a shovel and carries it around as his weapon. Good idea. And this is Stuart Gordon we’re talking about, so there will be blood, which I appreciate, even if most of it’s blue.

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Then, even when it seems like they got away and they’re gonna have a Mary and Joseph style birth in a Mexican barn, they still end up having to fight an evil semi-truck to the death. So this is a low budget movie but it gives a very high bang-to-buck ratio and therefore while many movies have more bucks they have so much less bang per buck that mathematically it adds up to less overall bang than FORTRESS. So what I’m trying to say here is that FORTRESS does have more bang to the buck but more importantly just an overall higher bang level than many movies, regardless of buck amounts.

This seems like a cheesier movie than THE RUNNING MAN, but I think it’s much more solid. Research informs me it cost about $12 million and was filmed at the movie studio/theme park WB Movie World in Queensland Australia, as part of an initiative to make Australian films for the international market. In the U.S. it was released in September, so it didn’t have to compete with summer genre movies like JURASSIC PARK and, uh… CONEHEADS? So I think it managed to be seen by a few people (enough that there is a part 2) and be remembered pretty fondly I’m sure and now I am a member of your club, thank you for welcoming me.

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VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, April 20th, 2015 at 5:16 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “Fortress”

  1. I wasn’t even 15 when this came out but I so wanted to see it. I finally got to when it premiered on home video and have been a fan ever since. In a nice bit of synchronicity, I just met Jeffrey Combs at a convention in Louisiana. To my everlasting shame, I got sidetracked talking about ROBOT JOX, CASTLE FREAK and even EDMOND without ever getting to ask him about FORTRESS. It’s also shame that medium budget genre films like this, which was Lambert’s bread and butter in the 90’s, are in such short supply. Maybe I’m not looking in the right place.

  2. This was a good movie. I remember watching it a few years after it came out in a time when I was just starting to become politicised; in the uk we had only just introduced private prisons so the idea of a public service institution being taken over by a corporation and the future the movie shows of constant corporate domination into politics really resonated with the young Analog.

    Watched it a few years later and though my memory is hazy I do recall being confused about Zed-10 – it supposedly reads the thoughts of prisoners, so that they cannot even consider an escape, and it watches their dreams, so that any time they dream of happiness outside the fortress, that dream is cut short. This is nice and freaky, but when it does and doesn’t read minds is dependent entirely on whether the plot demands it at that moment. Plus, if you’ve got a telepathic computer, wouldn’t you want to put it to better use than in the prison system?

  3. The lesser sequel has some worthwhile ideas too, such as the location of the prison. And some fucking terrible CGI-shots, as I recall. It’s directed by Geoff Murphy, who specialized in making worthwhile-yet-neglected part II’s during his Hollywood years, including one you dedicated an entire chapter to in a book.

    But the first Fortress is easily the highlight of the John Henry Brennick-saga. Welcome to the club!

  4. The Undefeated Gaul

    April 20th, 2015 at 8:01 am

    I remember when this came out. My dad was taking me to the movies and it came down to a choice between this and Passenger 57. I chose Fortress because I was more into sci-fi stuff. Good choice, I think.

  5. “So I think it managed to be seen by a few people (enough that there is a part 2) and be remembered pretty fondly I’m sure and now I am a member of your club, thank you for welcoming me.”

    Welcome to the club Vern. I had a feeling you’d end up liking this one. Just do yourself a favor and avoid FORTRESS 2 because it was a definite step down. If you want more Lambert coolness under the helm of a proven genre director (Deran Sarafian of DEATH WARRANT and TERMINAL VELOCITY) then do check out GUNMEN which came out only a year after this one. Maintaining Lambert’s momentum and giving him 2 back to back 90’s b-movie classics.

  6. Oh yeah, GUNMEN is a hoot. To bad the only 2.35 DVD of it came out in Japan (released by Sony). I believe it’s out of print now, but worth seeking out if you like the movie. GUNMEN looks pretty good in scope! Serafian and Lambert did another one together too, though it’s not much compared to GUNMEN. Lambert had a good run from the mid-80s to the late 90-s, if you care for this sort of mid-budget genre fare. My fave is probably Gabriele Salvatores’ NIRVANA, the best cyber-punk pic I can think of.

  7. Ah, yes, FORTRESS. I remember seeing this way back…My wife had just taken the kids to see her parents and I…Joking aside, this got a relatively big release here in Norway. But then again, critics and cinema people over here have always had a soft spot for French movie stars – TASHUNGA, anyone? The French/Norwegian snow-western with Lambert, James Caan and a bunch of Norwegian actors, directed by Nils Gaup?

  8. TASHUNGA has a pretty memorable chase scene in in – and a very miscast and wooden Lambert. I like it. I believe Gaup signed onto this after walking off the set of WATERWORLD. Was based on a novel by Heck Allen, who (when he was not writing western novels under the name Will Henry) wrote all of those fantastic Tex Avery cartoons. Certainly TASHUNGA falls short compared to the countless Avery masterpieces!

  9. Saw this when it came out on VHS and I remember enjoying it.

  10. Forrest Taft: GUNMEN is still in print(or maybe back in print) and rather inexpensive(less than $10, IIRC), I ordered mine from CD Japan about two months ago. I have a weird fascination with TASHUNGA(or NORTH STAR as I know it). I rather liked it, mainly for the scenery and James Caan’s chewing of said scenery. It has been released with two different edits and music scores. I’ve been looking for a widescreen copy of the version scored by John Scott.

    Those were the best times for Lambert. My favorite from that era is THE HUNTED but I enjoyed most of the ones y ‘ all mentioned, and also add THE ROAD KILLERS (aka ROAD FLOWER).

  11. For any reason the whole epilogue with the barn and the truck is missing from the German version, which gives the movie a slightly happier ending. Nobody really knows why. It can’t be a censorship decision (since the rest of the movie is uncut) and if international versions are missing scenes, it’s usually actionless dialogue stuff, to sell it better as an action movie.

  12. Vern, was this inspired by my recent mention of THE HUNTED, thus bringing in a discussion of FORTRESS here? it can’t be a coincidence.

  13. Loryn Locklin, you say? I don’t remember her in this, but I DO remember her from TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS and now I want to revisit FORTRESS as soon as possible.

  14. A 2.35:1 GUNMEN you say?

  15. The Original Paul

    April 21st, 2015 at 1:24 am

    I’ve only ever seen parts of this, never the whole thing. Which sounds kinda sad, considering Vern’s review, although the weirdest thing puts me off: the fact that the wise mentor of the group is called “Abraham”. Makes me think that if they were on a prison ship instead of a fortress, the guy would be called Noah or something. Anyway, I’ll try and check it out at some point.

  16. I feel that it have to be mentioned that the screenplay for TASHUNGA was written by Sergio Donato and his son. That’s all.

  17. Griff, I actually already had the review in the can but posted it sooner than I was planning to because you guys were talking about it.

  18. This is a very fun movie, and it might be my favorite Christopher Lambert film. I think this and 1994’s NO ESCAPE with Ray Liotta make for an amazing 90’s B movie prison SiFi double feature.

  19. Charles, and don’t forget Mean Guns, the christopher lambert – Ice-T blockbuster.

    Ok, it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, but I liked the ridiculous premise.

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