By the 20-minute mark in “Lockout,” you’ll have figured out its pattern. Whenever Guy Pearce’s Snow — a 1980s action hero throwback that shoots hilarious wisecracks as often as his gun – is on screen, the film’s a fun, brainless action flick with a main character that deserves a better movie. When he’s not, it often falls flat due to lackluster adversaries and an overly ambitious plot that actually features a Star Wars like spaceship dogfight.
Pearce (“The King’s Speech”) channels some of the great action stars of the past – Bruce Willis’ John McClane from “Die Hard,” Mel Gibson’s Riggs from “Lethal Weapon” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix from “Commando” – in crafting Snow, an instantly likeable lead who has that “I wish I was as cool as this guy doing anything” charisma.
Ten minutes in and cracking up at Snow’s sarcastic responses during an interrogation that explains why authorities think he’s a spy, I’m wondering if there’s any chance Sylvester Stallone can find some way to squeeze Pearce in “Expendables 2.” Guy Pearce = kick-tail action hero. Who’d have thought?
Luc Besson (“The Transporter”) is credited with the original idea for the film, but John Carpenter and Nick Castle deserve just as much credit since the plot is pretty much a revamp of their 1981 “Escape from New York” with a few tweaks here and there to make it slightly different. Some, like switching the future date from 1997 to 2097 or changing the kidnapped victim from the president to his daughter, are a bit obvious, although even the most significant change of relocating the giant maximum security prison from Manhattan to a space station clearly pays homage to the update’s inspiration.
Unless their last name is Coen, it’s rarely a good sign that a movie needs two directors and James Mather and Stephen St. Leger — who also share screenwriting credits with Besson — do little to change my opinion. “Lockout” marks their first full-length collaboration and my biggest complaint with them is also my biggest compliment — they try to do way too much for a film that didn’t need half the effort they put into it. Their opening action scene is shot so chaotically with music video style editing, sped-up film and dizzying camera angles that it might look cool if the audience could actually process what’s going on.
The president’s daughter, Emilie (“Lost’s” Maggie Grace), goes to maximum-security prison facility to ensure that the prisoners are being treated well. One of the prisoners gets free and triggers a widespread breakout with the inmates now running the asylum… or space station in this case. One thing that bugged me is how the hostages in these situations always go along with the bad guy even if it means doing something that makes them expendable. Have they never watched an action movie??
Secret Service head Langral (Peter Stormare, “Prison Break”) offers Snow a chance to avoid his 30-year sentence if he can safely retrieve Emilie. Snow’s reluctant to take the suicide mission until he learns his friend — who holds the key to the briefcase that can clear Snow’s name — is serving his sentence on the station so Snow straps on his astronaut gear to free Emilie and his reputation.
After saving Emilie, Snow treats her like an unnecessary burden to his real mission resulting in some fun exchanges between the two. Pearce and Grace have an easy chemistry so even though the bickering hero and plucky female sidekick isn’t breaking new ground in an action film, their interactions easily provide the film’s best scenes.
If only their adversaries were as interesting. The inmate leader, Alex, (Vincent Regan, “300”) isn’t given any material to explain why the others fall in line with his orders and fellow deranged prisoner, Hydell (Joseph Gilgan, “Misfits”) comes across like a poor imitation of Heath Ledger’s take on Joker from “The Dark Knight” minus the green hair. Stormare would probably make for a better main villain since he’s used to playing shady roles and Langral is largely a one-note character anyway.
Most of the action is fairly subdued with few exciting fights, but that’s largely so Mather and St. Leger could use their budget on a pointless space dogfight. It’s dull since you don’t care about any of the characters except Snow and Emilie, who are forced to endure one of the most nonsensical escapes I’ve ever seen. The scene played so badly in the screening I attended that it got some of the largest laughs of the night — only in that case, Mather and St. Leger weren’t trying to make the audience laugh — I think.
Despite the questionable last action scene, Pearce is able to steer the film back on course before the credits roll. It’s a pretty remarkable performance to make such a flawed movie tolerable and in that regard, he’s an even bigger hero than Snow. See it for Pearce, but the rest of “Lockout” won’t get paroled anytime soon for good behavior.
Rating – 6 out of 10