Saturday, April 21, 2012

Locked and Loaded

When I saw the trailer for Lockout (2012, directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger) the new action film from Luc Besson's genre factory, I knew that I had to see it. Oh, it looked awful, but it looked awful in that sweet spot of awful that's unreasonably entertaining, if you get my drift. I mean, you could see the entire movie in the trailer. It's essentially Escape From New York crossed with Fortress 2 and Die Hard, in which a single badass hero succeeds where an army would fail. Escape from New York IN SPACE? "Seriously," I said to sympathetic friends, how could this be bad?" (Note: the involvement of Luc Besson did give me pause along these lines). In truth, this is a movie that I would love to have seen with a gaggle of other people. I have at least a dozen friends who would groove on this movie and if I could have gathered them up in one place to watch it on the big screen, it would have been one of the sweeter movie going experiences I've had in a while. I had to settle for one friend, and a mostly empty theater, alas, but it was still fun.

I probably shouldn't say that Lockout is awful, because really, it's not. It's a specific kind of genre film and it executes the narrow range of its genre tropes about as well as any other action movie, and I look down on that at my peril. This is not a genre sector populated by movies that aspire to more than pure entertainment, so if you get more than that, count yourself lucky, and if you don't, well, that doesn't mean that the experience is bad. Entertainment is entertainment, right? If you want a message, as Sam Goldwyn once opined, send it Western Union. Anyway, when you compare this to other like movies, it stacks up pretty well. It has good production design, a compelling central character, a more than adequate stock of one-liners, and a willingness to dive headfirst into its own absurdity. I'll own up to the fact that this is a combo I find irresistible.

Let's start with the plot: Secret agent Snow is at the center of an operation gone bust. He's on the run with a briefcase full of secrets, having been framed for the murder of a fellow agent. One of his superiors, he knows, is a traitor. Unfortunately, the net closes on him and he's at the mercy of the agency. His sentence for his crimes is a stint in the stasis cells aboard MS 1, a maximum security prison being constructed in orbit. He has one hope of clearing himself: his silent partner has the evidence and the briefcase when he's caught. If he can get to him, he can clear himself. Meanwhile, MS 1 is being visited by the President's daughter, who is an activist for prison reform. She's there to discover whether the prison is being used for illegal experimentation by shadowy corporations who are designing projects for interstellar flight. At the very least, she wants to confirm that the stasis procedure is humane. Unfortunately for her, it isn't, and the prisoner she chooses to talk to stages an escape that frees the entire prison population, a population of criminals and psychos whose danger is exacerbated by the delirium stasis induces. Assaulting the prison is a non-starter. The hostages would never survive, so instead, the decision is made to send in Snow. Mayhem ensues.

Action movies rise and fall on the actor chosen to play the lead. Movies like Predator and Die Hard are more dependent on the personalities of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis than they are on just about any other element. The golden era of the action film may be over, but the lessons have been learned, and the filmmakers here have provided an excellent lead actor in Guy Pearce. Pearce is buff, world-weary, and cynical. He's a good choice, even if the actor himself isn't necessarily an action star. His supporting cast isn't bad, either. Joseph Gilgun makes for a good, and frightening psycho, Peter Stomare oozes menace as the head of the agency who thinks that Snow is guilty as hell, and Lennie James is smartly sympathetic as Snow's only friend at the agency. The weak link in this is Maggie Grace as Emily Warnock, the president's daughter. She gives a mostly one-note performance, as if someone behind the camera demanded that she be a hyper-competent foil for Snow and that she not show any other emotion. Given her circumstances, this seems a bit much for the audience to believe. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for sharp, competent women who keep up with the boys, but in this case, it doesn't make for a compelling, or even credible character. Grace gives it her best shot--she's gotten a lot better since she was on Lost, after all--but the writing lets her down. I had an idle thought as I was leaving the theater that I wouldn't have minded if Emily Warnock had been the hero(ine) of the movie, dispensing with Snow all together. It's not like Luc Besson hasn't made movies about female action heroes before.

Once upon a time, the production values in this movie would have wowed the audience. They would have broken the bank, too, but progress in set design (virtual and otherwise) and special effects has brought all of that down to earth. This is a passably good-looking movie in an era where "good-looking" is the default. It does show a little bit of its budget in the motorcycle chase that begins the movie. That sequence looks like it was created in a computer. It doesn't have any weight of gravity or reality to it. But the sequences in space? Those look great. I wish the filmmakers had taken some time to figure out a different color design, though. The blue monochrome that dominates this movie is such a cliche anymore that I just roll my eyes whenever I see it.

All in all, a fun movie. It's not creative, and it's not world-shattering, but movies that swing for that particular fence strike out even more often than stock genre efforts like this one. And who's to say that "fun" isn't a laudable goal for any movie? Certainly, not me.

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