If you had to pin me down, knees on my shoulders, threaten to flob in my mouth, and get me to confess to the kind of film I like more than any other, of course I would thrash and scream, and dissemble, and throw out some bullpucky about French crime movies of the early sixties, about Tarkovsky, Joderowsky and Kurismaki, but sooner or later, probably at the point where you start tickling me, I’d have to fess up and say it’s cheap, fast and dirty early eighties SF that really does it for me.
And that, Readership, is why I loved Lockout.
(as ever, ‘ware spoilers.)
Studios like Cannon, Orion and New World, and directors like Albert Pyun and Brian Yuzna were genre factories in the 80’s, pumping out the sort of films that a skinny, sugared up overimaginative teen like me would hoover up with utter, unfeigned delight. They say the music and film that you love at thirteen stay with you for the rest of your life. My music taste was a heady mix of punk, new wave and early electronica. The films I loved had titles like Battle Beyond The Stars and Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone. This probably tells you a lot about me.
The king of ‘em all, of course, is John Carpenter, who bestrode the budget genre scene like a colossus. His films are regularly in my top five lists. He’s a hero of mine. It’s no surprise that I was instantly drawn to Luc Besson’s latest production. It looked like a film Carpenter would have made for New World in 1984.
Lockout has the simple high concept that budget SF thrives on. There’s a breakout on a space prison, the President’s daughter is trapped on board, and there’s only one man that can bring her in. A disgraced ex-CIA operative, on the way to the prison himself for a crime he didn’t commit.
It’s Escape From New York in space, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. Part of the fun in Lockout is the gleeful way it lobs references and homages to action movie tropes around. The hero, Snow, played with laconic charm by Guy Pearce, is a wise-crack machine, constantly lobbing out fun lines and insults. He’s more Jack Burton than Snake Plissken. There are two villains, one ruthless and calculating, one batshit crazy. There’s a feisty heroine. There’s even a friendly cop feeding Snow the info he needs to stay alive on the killing floor of the space prison (there’s something about the phrase “space prison” that always makes me smile, and why Besson didn’t decide to just call the film that is beyond me. It’s one of those titles, like Snakes On A Plane, or Pirahna 3DD. You know exactly what you’re going to get before you even buy a ticket).
There’s also a winning combination in the pairing of Pearce and Maggie Grace as the brave and loyal President’s daughter, Emilie. Yeah, sure, the dislike on both sides that turns into something more in the heat of combat is yet another cliche. Yet somehow it seems to work here, providing a warmth and spark that would be missing if Snow were a lone gunman.
The trick, of course, is not to think too hard about the set-up. I mean, how expensive and difficult would it be to blast the most hardened crims in the world into orbit and THEN into suspended animation? There’s a bit of a gimme about the station being a test-bed for deep-space exploration, but no-one’s buying that. There’s a space prison because it’s a space prison movie. That’s all you need to know.
It’s a ride, but it’s smarter than the average, and merrily upends a lot of the cliches along the way. There’s no forced romance between Snow and Emilie. His cop buddy, an avuncular Lennie James, is not what he seems. And the setpieces, including the escape from the prison, have a real sense of scale and imagination. Sure, the effects are a bit cheap, and the murky grade does the film no favours. But so what? I was hooked from the first punch thrown, which is about ten seconds and two lines of dialogue in. Five minutes later, Snow has beaten up four assassins, been shot at by a helicopter gunship, jumped off a rooftop and been set on fire. An invincible, indestructible hero. Of course. What more do you want?
The excellent Comics Alliance review proclaims that it’s best watched on a VHS copied from the telly, which is a sentiment I can understand but don’t really agree with. Lockout is retro, but it’s big enough to be worth a screening at a fleapit or cheap cinema club. I’d love to see it as part of a late night double bill with Escape From New York. Preferably at the Scala sometime in 1985, but I guess you can’t have everything.