It seems unfair to demand air-tight plotting from the sci-fi thriller Lockout. Co-written and produced by Luc Besson, France’s leading pulp-film purveyor, Lockout takes place in 2079 and depicts a hostage rescue from a Supermax prison—that happens to be orbiting the Earth. Directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger aren’t making 2001: A Space Odyssey here.
Why a space jail? Lockout gives a couple of rationales, including the need to isolate dangerous prisoners and a hidden agenda of corporate experimentation. Mindless action movies have been made on worse premises. Other details don’t stand up to much scrutiny, like the Low Orbit Police Department, or “L.O.P.D.,” a satellite apparently well-staffed with cops who struggle to deal with the prison takeover. Does the solar system really have enough crime to justify a police space base? (Granted, raising such an objection feels like nitpicking.)
Audiences may rightfully complain, however, when Guy Pearce’s tough hero, fighting a hulking inmate, puts a collar-shaped explosive around the bad guy’s neck. Lockout not only cuts away from the blast, it denies us a good, grisly look at the body. Hey, why not show the gory, decapitating explosion? But this scene is pretty representative of the movie as a whole—Lockout’s payoff falls well short of its outlandish concept and intriguing buildup.
Directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger start the film at a headlong pace with the harsh interrogation of Snow (Guy Pearce), who’s some kind of vaguely defined government operative. Snow shrugs off the sneering questions from Secret Service agent Langrel (Peter Stormare) before the film flashes back to the crime that got him here. During the flashback, Snow gets into an exciting hand-to-hand fight in a hotel bathroom only to see a CIA agent friend get killed before exposing a conspiracy. The authorities pursue Snow, whose attempt to leap from one building through the window of another goes comically awry. With effects like a tie-in video game for Minority Report, Snow outruns a helicopter in a souped-up motorcycle and passes off a mysterious piece of evidence to his sidekick before getting caught, quite literally, in a dragnet.
Circumstantial evidence convicts Snow for his friend’s death, and he gets sentenced to MS One, where comatose felons spend their sentences in orbit. (Why can’t they just be “in stasis” on Earth? Again, nitpicky.) Enter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), the daughter of the current U.S. president, as she inspects the penitentiary’s conditions on behalf of a human rights group. Alas, the least competent security guards arrange for Emilie to meet the craziest convict, Hydell (Joseph Gilgun), who escapes and releases hundreds of fellow prisoners from their tanning bed-style stasis chambers.
With echoes of Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken movies, Snow takes a deal to rescue Emilie in exchange for a pardon. Pearce delivers his snappy quips with the right note of ironic insolence, suggesting he could easily carry a better-executed shoot-’em-up, and for a while, Lockout measures up to Besson’s standards for slick, uncomplicated spectacle. The crafty Alpha Male prisoner (Vincent Regan) plays cat-and-mouse games with the police negotiators. Snow makes a surreptitious space walk into MS One. A fight in a zero-gravity tube reminds one what a homicidal version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s scene with the fizzy lifting drinks might have looked like.
Lockout coasts along with pedestrian competence until Snow finally teams up with Emilie, after which the charm curdles as they become a stereotypical bickering movie couple. Snow’s sneering remarks to Emilie and her sheer quantity of injuries, indignities and other insults give Lockout a misogynistic tone that spoils its quick-and-dirty sense of fun. Grace brings a likable mix of upper-class entitlement and girl-next-door grounding to the clichéd role, although Snow’s attempt to disguise her as a man among the rape-minded inmates proves ridiculous. (Why did Lost producers kill off the statuesque blonde, anyway?)
Lockout takes pains to establish an intimidating head villain and a live-wire, predatory henchman, but the evildoers never emerge as worthy opponents. That said, with a twitchy, rooster-like performance and an accent so thick he’d be subtitled in a Guy Ritchie film, Gilgun deserves recognition for his go-for-broke overacting.
Sometimes Besson’s productions transcend their schlocky origins.(District 13, which introduced parkour to international action audiences, is one such example.) Lockout begins with brio, but its big confrontations prove surprisingly rushed and anticlimactic, leaving one to question whether the film’s money shots were cut to meet its PG-13 rating or required special effects too pricey for the budget to absorb. Either way, the result is the same—Lockout proves a would-be guilty pleasure that, in pulling its punches, offers few pleasures at all.
Director: James Mather & Stephen St. Leger
Writers: Luc Besson, James Mather & Stephen St. Leger
Starring: Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare
Release Date: Apr. 13, 2012