FORTRESS 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.)
Meanwhile, 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.
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.
April 20th, 2015 at 6:03 am
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.