Tom Jolliffe looks back at Lock Up, one of Sylvester Stallone’s less heralded peak era films…
1989. Sylvester Stallone had topped the mountain in the 80’s. It all came to a head in 1985 when Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II dominated the box office. In today’s world, it was akin to having two films pushing the billion mark worldwide. The years following would begin a slow decline that, bar the odd exception like Cliffhanger, would see Stallone’s box office power wane through the 90s. That’s not to say there weren’t enjoyable films. I’ve always found Cobra underrated. Tango and Cash is also great fun. Into the 90’s and Demolition Man was ahead of its time, and the aforementioned Cliffhanger was also excellent.
Like Schwarzenegger, Stallone’s rise as an action icon brought with it a need to extend his range. Whilst Arnie was successful with films like Twins and Kindergarten Cop, Stallone’s ventures into comedy were not successful (though Oscar has slowly picked up admirers). Additionally, Sly tried to pull away from the bare chested indestructible (near comic book) hero by doing more grounded work. It didn’t work in 1996 with Daylight (though I really do like that one). It did work in Copland. Another more dramatic turn for the ‘action star’ Stallone, would come in the form of Lock Up. On paper it seems like it was forgotten for a reason. Dismal box office returns, poor critical reception and coming the same year as the far more widely appealing Tango and Cash.
So Lock Up is a dud right? Best to be left in the realms of forgotten action cinema? Well actually…Lock Up is pretty underrated. Is it one of Stallone’s best? Is it one of his most overtly enjoyable films? Perhaps not, but there is a lot to enjoy in Lock Up. This is Stallone’s Shawshank. Maybe a comparison that’s a touch unfair, as of course Lock Up isn’t likely to nestle nicely in anyone’s top 100 list. Stallone is a model prisoner, months from release, but finds himself transferred to a maximum prison under the watchful eye of a sadistic prison warden who has a personal vendetta against Stallone. Drumgoole (Sutherland) increasingly torments Leone, and alloys some antagonistic guards and inmates carte blanche to do likewise. Stallone isn’t Rambo here. He’s not going to fist fight 100 prisoners and come out on top of a burly sweat mountain. He’s going to get the shit kicked out of him, because he’s a ‘real character.’
Whilst Lock Up might be comparatively grounded compared to the stoic theatrics of sequel Rambo, or Cobra, or Ray Tango, it’s still preposterous. It’s probably not supposed to be so histrionic or illogical. In theory it probably pitched to be closer to something like Shawshank, but it was hamstrung by 80’s tunnel vision and indulgence. Lock Up does get silly at times, and the concept and levels of sadism that Sutherland seems to revel in feel in danger of becoming less realistic than Rambo, or Commando, or anything Chuck Norris was doing. It’s also for these reasons, in a script which probably doesn’t nail loftier ambitions, that it now feels like a rediscovered gem. Those cheesy elements make it a great nostalgic repeat, easy to enjoy. The beaten down underdog, just wanting to go the distance and finish his sentence unscathed, is basically Rocky in prison. The villains are comic book level villains, but this in itself makes them enjoyable.
The performances are decent. Stallone has been better but plays it with plenty of sincerity. Tom Sizemore and Frank McRae are good in support too. This is very much a villains film though. Sonny Landham who had something of a reputation for being unpredictable on set and fiercely intense, absolutely revels in his role as Stallone’s chief tormentor in the clink. It’s a great villain and allows Landham plenty of opportunity to physically menace Stallone. Then there’s Donald Sutherland, who is pure evil. There’s no shades of grey. We know he’s corrupted and obsessive. He’s exercising his position in power and like a sadist pulling wings off a fly is picking Leone (Sly) apart.
The film doesn’t go for big action but still has plenty of set pieces. Of course there’s brawls and riots and the production design often ramps up the hellish nature of Stallone’s prison. There’s also a wet muddy and savagely brutal prison football game that actually hurts to watch and all nicely orchestrated by action specialist, John Flynn. By the slightly ridiculous end, it’s actually been a ride. It would seem people are slowly rediscovering Lock Up, and finding a level to enjoy it on and again, not least for it’s primo double billing of awesome villains. It’s not unfair to say that Landham and Sutherland elevate the film by being so reprehensible and hiss worthy, and making us even more inclined to root for Frank Leone’s well earned freedom.
Have you seen Lock Up? Where does it rank in Stallone’s canon? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.