It could be argued that LOCK UP isn’t quite an action movie – that it’s more of a drama with some violence and extreme villainy. And if it is action I’m not sure how it fits into the theme of this series about a shift in the genre heading into the next decade. No, it doesn’t seem like the ’90s ones with “DIE HARD on a _____” type hooks (CLIFFHANGER, DAYBREAK) or special effects and stylized settings (DEMOLITION MAN, JUDGE DREDD). But it’s also not quite the over the top feel we associate with the ’80s because of movies like RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, COBRA and, well… OVER THE TOP. It has a score by Bill Conti (fresh off of THE KARATE KID PART III) that brings ROCKY-like majesty, especially during the montage of the harrowing football game that’s intentionally more about hurting him than sport. This is Stallone in tough-but-vulnerable mode, and even has a part where he builds to a yelling, emotional speech kinda like the end of FIRST BLOOD.
I attribute the film’s timelessness and grit to director John Flynn, a legend to me because of THE OUTFIT and ROLLING THUNDER in the ’70s and OUT FOR JUSTICE in the ’90s. This was his followup to BEST SELLER. He didn’t generally participate in trends – he just made John Flynn movies.
Stallone plays Frank Leone, introduced having a great weekend with his loving girlfriend Melissa (Darlanne Fluegel, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., PET SEMATARY TWO), coaching a kids touch football game, joking around, enjoying life in that way that means “oh shit, this is a prison movie so this poor guy’s about to be framed for a crime he didn’t commit!” Except that’s a misdirect, because Melissa says she’s gonna miss him and drops him off at the prison, which means he’s a guard who’s gonna get taken hostage during a riot. Except it’s not that either! Actually he’s a convict who was allowed a furlough and he’s such a model prisoner he’s welcomed like an old pal by both guards and cons. He’s on the home stretch and has a good attitude and they let him have a little office in his cell and things are pretty good, all things considered.
Until one night Captain Meissner (John Amos a little before DIE HARD 2) and some other guys in uniform storm in, grab him and transfer him to Gateway Prison, which they hype up as a brutal nightmare kinda like Don Johnson does for his prison in BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99. This one is not nearly as bad – you’ll be surprised by the privileges they allow some prisoners – but the trouble is that it’s run by Leone’s old arch-nemesis, the fancifully named Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE SPLIT, KELLY’S HEROES). He fucking despises Leone and has brought him there for avengement purposes.
We learn that Leone’s original bid was at a different prison run by Drumgoole, and when he was near the end of his sentence he escaped because he wasn’t allowed a furlough to see his dying mentor, the old man who ran the auto garage he’d worked at. That got him five more years but also started a scandal that got Drumgoole in trouble for his mistreatment of prisoners. So now he’s out to be even worse to this particular prisoner.
We get enjoyable versions of all the expected prison movie tropes. The traditional scary big guy who terrorizes him is Chink Weber (Sonny Landham, PREDATOR, BEST OF THE BEST 2), who won’t let him sit anywhere in the yard, steals his food, forces him into the aforementioned football game, tries to steal the ring on a necklace that Melissa gave him to remember her by, etc. The weaselly guy who gives him the exposition about the politics of the prison is Dallas (Tom Sizemore [BLUE STEEL, POINT BREAK, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN] in his first movie). He also tries to get Leone a job in the prison auto garage (?), at first refused by head mechanic Eclipse (Frank McRae, who we just saw as Sharky in LICENCE TO KILL, but he was also in F.I.S.T., PARADISE ALLEY and ROCKY II with Stallone). And later we have the fresh meat who Leone shows the ropes to, a panicky guy with a punk attitude called First Base (Larry Romano, “Sales Clerk,” OUT FOR JUSTICE).
Whenever Leone is in the yard minding his own business, Chink is circling like a shark, and whenever something foul is happening, Drumgoole is up on a balcony or watching through a window, stroking his chin and refusing to intervene. The movie has a very effective use of that cliche that the black characters are the ones who show signs of having a conscience and sense of fairness while the white people are running amuck. So it will keep cutting to their reactions and, for example a guard named Braden (William Allen Young, A SOLDIER’S STORY, DROP SQUAD) is clearly enraged and trying to figure out what to do about Chink and the outwardly prickish Manly (Jordan Lund, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, THE ROOKIE, SPEED) being allowed to beat the shit out of Leone.
Obviously that’s an oversimplification of racial dynamics in the broken criminal justice system, but it tends to work in movies because it seems believable that a guy like Braden had to fight harder to get to where he is and takes the bullshit he sees more personally. He seems sympathetic to Leone from the get go, but there are two very satisfying character turns here where we watch them watch what’s going, clearly not happy about it. The first is Eclipse, who didn’t like Leone and wouldn’t let him work at the garage, but we see him standing and stewing as Chink and his gang pummel Leone in that football game. When he can’t take it anymore he joins Leone’s team in a rage.
It’s an intense scene because they’re wearing regular clothes and covered in mud and McRae, a former defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears, knocks those motherfuckers around like bowling pins. Afterwards he changes his mind about the garage job, and they especially bond when Leone leads the mechanics in rebuilding Eclipse’s beloved Mustang “Maybelline.” That happens in a montage set to a cool song called “Vehicle”:
It’s from the band The Ides of March, released in 1970. I’d never guess it by the sound of it, but the singer is Jim Peterik, who later founded Survivor and co-wrote “Eye of the Tiger” for Stallone when Queen wouldn’t let him use “Another One Bites the Dust” for ROCKY III. I would say “when Queen foolishly wouldn’t let him use” it, but maybe as princes of the universe they were able to sense how important it was for someone else to create a new song in that moment.
As long as we’re taking a brief tangent to talk about music I need to mention something. The week that LOCK UP came out is the week that Billboard’s #1 single spot transferred from Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” to Prince’s “Batdance.” And Prince’s “Batdance” is not just a song that played in the movie BATMAN (it actually didn’t) or appeared on the soundtrack. It has more dialogue samples from the movie than it has lyrics. This is a while six movie-releasing weeks after the release of BATMAN and it’s still on everybody’s minds so much that it’s the #1 song! I looked up what came out six weeks ago as of this writing, but it was MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL, which didn’t really catch on anyway. Clearly pop culture moves exponentially faster these days, but something like that was unusual back then too. So it’s the power of Batmania.
Back to LOCK UP. To me this Maybelline section is the most distinctive part of the movie. Leone notices the car under a tarp and convinces Eclipse it’s salvageable. There’s such joy in their teamwork and accomplishment. They pour their souls into repairing this object that they all think is beautiful but cannot use for its intended purpose while behind prison walls.
And then there’s the crucial scene where First Base wants to know what it’s like to drive it, and Leone pushes him around the garage in drive and helps him imagine cruising around. Then he (reluctantly, foolishly) lets him rev the engine one time, knowing it could get them in huge trouble. But First Base loses his shit and decides to crash the car through the wall and drive it around the yard. I’m not even sure if he’s trying to escape or go out in a blaze of glory or what. But Leone chases him and yanks him out and prevents him from being shot. Drumgoole, through his emissaries Chink and four other prisoners, destroys the car. It makes Eclipse cry. They leave Maybelline’s corpse out in the yard, in the rain, like hanging a pirate outside of town as a warning. And Chink wears the mustang emblem from the grill as a novelty oversized belt buckle. Like a war criminal keeping trophies from his kills.
For extra-extra torment Drumgoole makes the guards, who are about to drag First Base away, put Leone in the hole instead. Even after days or weeks of torturous sleep deprivation Leone gets along with First Base. He’s just a forgiving guy, though. Later Dallas sells him out during an escape attempt. Instead of giving Dallas the reward he was promised, Drumgoole has the guards beat him and Leone, though freshly betrayed, yells “That’s enough! You’re gonna kill him!”
I also forgive Dallas for calling guards “Colonel Clink” in two different scenes. I couldn’t figure out if that was an editing error (usually you wouldn’t want to use the same joke twice) or a touch of realism (people do often repeat their dumb jokes).
These bad guys are cartoonishly evil, but they don’t know who they’re dealing with. They’re the kind of villains who say stuff like “You’re not a murderer! You don’t have the guts!” And then do not live to regret it. There’s also a character who leads Leone to believe he’s going to be released and paid to rape and kill Melissa. It’s not a real plan, just a way to terrorize him. But the point is when he gets his comeuppance Leone yells “Rape this!” and punches him in the balls. Likely the silliest and/or tackiest part of the movie. But I’m not necessarily against it.
One thing I thought was kind of weird: early in the movie they make a big point of establishing that Drumgoole had the old electric chair refurbished, which sets the stage for the climax when he gets strapped into it. But he also says all this unnecessary stuff about there being a passage from his office to the execution chamber. It seems like this passage was supposed to be important either for Leone to escape or for him to attack Drumgoole, but that part doesn’t amount to anything. Maybe they changed something and forgot to cut that dialogue.
I don’t think I have to tell you that I absolutely love the artwork on the left here, which seems to have been used on the poster in many countries. The one I remember here is on the right, which is apparently the video poster – my research leads me to believe that the theatrical one was the same art but completely black and white, no red sky. To me that art is more true to the feeling of the movie – which ends with classy photo montage credits – even if the other one is clearly more awesome.
LOCK UP didn’t make back its budget at the box office, and got poor reviews – only 17% positive according to Rotten Tomatoes. Hal Hinson in the Washington Post called it a “vanity production” and “a made-to-order number from Stallone’s own company,” as if it’s wrong for an actor (who was also an Academy Award nominated writer!) to have a hand in the movies he stars in. What a ridiculous thing to criticize – that an actor known as an action hero produces a movie where his character is shown in a positive light. I hope he wouldn’t pull that shit on Clint Eastwood.
At the time there was a backlash against the popular musclebound action stars and a widely accepted snobbishness toward their (still popular) movies. It goes without saying that the dickheads at the Razzies nominated LOCK UP in their dumbass worst picture, worst actor and worst supporting actor categories. The joyless little shits also nominated ROAD HOUSE and TANGO & CASH for a bunch of things that year, but most of the “awards” went to STAR TREK V and HARLEM NIGHTS because, as the Hinson quote suggests, you were supposed to get mad at actors for directing back then. The ego and all that.
I can understand, if not agree with, some of the knocks against the movie. Some people don’t like formulas, and if you’ve seen other prison movies you’ve definitely seen most of the plot elements here. And I have to accept that many people, and especially film critics of that time, don’t share my appreciation for odd tones. To me, Stallone’s performance, the cinematography of Donald E. Thorin (THIEF, PURPLE RAIN) and the Conti score create a grounding and an emotional sincerity that mixes interestingly with the slightly RICOCHET-esque outlandishness of Drumgoole’s evil vendetta. Obviously I’d go to bat for ROAD HOUSE first, but LOCK UP is such a solid, well made and likable movie, it just seems weird it got such harsh reactions. It’s hard not to conclude that it was more about their pre-conceived notions of Stallone and Stallone-type movies than about the actual movie.
The script is credited to Richard Smith, Henry Rosenbaum (THE DUNWICH HORROR, GET CRAZY) and Jeb Stuart (DIE HARD, ANOTHER 48 HRS., THE FUGITIVE, FIRE DOWN BELOW). I noticed on the credits that there was a “Tony Lip” credited as a guard, and sure enough IMDb says this is Tony Vallelonga, the guy that Viggo Mortensen played in GREEN BOOK. Another notable bit part is Danny Trejo as a member of Chink’s gang.
The stunt coordinator is Frank Orsatti, who was Bill Bixby’s stunt double on The Incredible Hulk. He also worked as a stuntman on two other summer of ’89 joints, ROAD HOUSE and LETHAL WEAPON 2. He was later stunt coordinator for HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.