Luc Besson's filmography has been spotty for years, littered with equal amounts of sensationalistic pop art and flashy duds, a tendency that extends beyond his directing credits. "Lockout," the latest Besson producing effort, falls into the latter category but doesn't go down quietly. Casting Guy Pearce as a shockingly derivative tough guy lead, directors Stephen St. Leger and James Mather deliver an overly familiar barrage of dystopian imagery, assaultive action choreography and other vapid devices that have a distinctly Bessonian quality. Besson shares a screenwriting credit with the directors and conceived of the original idea, which isn't saying much, except that he owns this joint.
In both premise and execution, "Lockout" combines elements of Besson's "The Fifth Element" and "Escape from New York," clinging to those and countless other movies' B-movie thrills so faithfully that it at least remains watchably bad. The filmmakers know the kind of movie they want to make: a rowdy space action-adventure with a proto-John Wayne anti-hero gunning his way through hordes of baddies and trading barbs with the damsel in distress he's assigned to rescue. That would be Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), the daughter of the president on this near-future Earth where much of the grimier aspects of society–most notably, prisons–have been relegated to orbit.
It's here that requisite badass Snow (Pearce), arrested for a crime of espionage he didn't commit, gets a chance for redemption by infiltrating a prison colony gone amuck. Snow establishes his hard ball credentials in the movie's clever first shot, which has him barely flinching from repeated punches to the face over the course of a vain interrogation session by a less humorous cop (Peter Stormare) for the aforementioned crime. Pearce humorously eggs on his captors, the credits cropping up each time he recoils from another blow, illustrating the combination of smarmy one-liners and brawn that follows. It's the most coherent, viscerally satisfying moment in the entire picture.
Flashbacks explain that the confusion of events involved a close set of negotiations for the mysterious contents of a suitcase (a nod, perhaps, to Robert Aldrich's great apocalyptic thriller "Kiss Me Deadly," also referenced in "Pulp Fiction"). Snow protects the contested object from a set of gun-wielding goons with the help of right hand man Mace (Tim Plester) and some cunning motorcycle skills demonstrated over the course of a speedy highway chase scene rendered in a blurry, hyper-digitized single take. Once the suitcase is hidden within the confines of a vault, it promptly drops out of the plot for the bulk of the running time as the hostage scenario takes charge.
From a purely technical standpoint, "Lockout" consists of disciplined action pastiche, but much of its thundering engine borrows from better movies. The filmmakers frame the material in a typical routine of shooting and screaming that diminishes its more engaging qualities, decent CGI of hulking space crafts and a committed self-deprecating turn by Pearce chief among them.
But the villains and the predicament they create never keep pace. The revolting prisoners take orders from a vicious ringleader (Vincent Regan) who lumbers about and grunts demands into the ship's ubiquitous cameras while his equally nefarious sibling (Joseph Gilgun) chuckles in the background and scores of American officials watch dumbstruck from the planet below. There's a near-reflex state of fatigue emanating from this scenario; rather than offering the hint of deja vu, "Lockout" encourages viewers to shrug at the blatant sense that they have seen better.
Mostly set on a drab prison ship filled with metallic walls and elevators, the minimalist set-up calls to mind a superior space western that looks downright subtle by modern blockbuster standards, the 1981 Sean Connery vehicle "Outland," a serviceable "High Noon" update that finds Connery facing down hordes of baddies on a lonely space colony. The earlier movie has a restraint virtually absent from "Lockout," although the new work gets away with general clumsiness precisely because movies like "Outland" and "Escape from New York" laid the groundwork.
Both "Outland" and "Escape from New York" date back to 1981, a decisive moment in the history of the modern blockbuster, when the ripple effects of "Jaws" and "Star Wars" birthed a new standard for studio tentpoles. Since then, said tentpoles have grown bigger, louder, and more erratic in ways that dwarf their Reagan-era precedents.
Comparing "Lockout" with the earlier movies reveals Besson's stylistic tendencies as little more than imitations of better works. For everything excessive about "Lockout," the only trick it lacks is a sense of imagination. As a director, Besson has made a few strong movies ("Angel A" being the last example) and plenty of forgettable ones (unless I'm missing something and "Arthur 3," which I did not see, deserves special consideration).
However, while Besson doesn't direct "Lockout," his authorship pervades the work, which isn't really directed at all so much as assembled out of a patchwork of gruff confrontations and loud, jarring noises. From the moment Besson's name appears onscreen, the movie belongs to his brand and testifies to its diminishing returns.
Criticwire grade: C-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? FilmDistrict releases "Lockout" this Friday, where it may attract some interest among Besson and Pearce fans, but most of the genre crowd is more likely to check out "Cabin in the Woods," whereas the mainstream popularity of "The Hunger Games" will also threaten its returns. This is one for the VOD/DVD market more than anything else.
Watch the trailer for "Lockout" below: