Stallone is all Leone in Prison
Whilst Sylvester Stallone has a whole portfolio of well known and popular movies, there are some which are rarely heard of. "Lock Up" is one such movie which sees Stallone take his likable tough guy persona into the world of prison life and as is normal when you think of prison movies sees his character rallying against a dictatorial and evil prison warden who likes to dish out misery through some dubious methods of prison control. All of which makes "Lock Up" sound like a stock prison movie and frankly for the most it is, it's even pretty much a stock Stallone movie with bulging biceps and angry grunting but it is on the whole entertaining.
With just a few months left to serve for assaulting some thugs, Frank Leone (Sylvester Stallone - Over the Top) is looking forward to getting out and getting on with his life with his girlfriend Melissa (Darlanne Fluegel - Tough Guys). But when he is suddenly transferred from the relative comfort of the Norwood Prison to the hell hole of the maximum security Gateway prison his chances of just doing his time is becoming less likely. Especially because the warden of Gateway, Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland - Animal House), has an old score to settle with Frank and plans to not only break him but find someway to make his stay a lot longer than the few months he has left.
I wish I could say that at its heart "Lock Up" is different to the various prison movies which have filled the big screen over the decades but at its heart it's that same old formula of a sinister warden trying to break a prisoner. As such there is much of "Lock Up" which follows an almost set in stone formula from the various attempts to break Frank, through to his bonding with a close group of other inmates and of course the anger when one of those gets drawn into a personal battle between Frank and warden Drumgoole. Even the attempt to give all of this meaning with Drumgoole and Frank having history adds little to disguise the formula at work. Not that this is a criticism as very few prison movies manage to stray from this formula.
But even though it follows the standard formula and as such borders on the unbelievable as it reaches to deliver drama from various set piece moments, it does achieve what it wants to and that is to entertain through various action scenes and make us champion Stallone playing another sort of likeable underdog character. There are some nice scenes which try to illustrate the violent life in the maximum security prison such as the brutal game of American Football and they allow Stallone to deliver that action performance which he is more than capable off with bulging biceps flexing in the shady light of the prison walls. And Stallone is accompanied by some equally sizable supporting cast such as Sonny Landham as the nasty Chink Weber who ramps up the menace quite brilliantly of life in the maximum security facility.
The casting of Donald Sutherland as the evil prison warden Drumgoole is also a clever piece of casting. Although Sutherland doesn't have a lot to do he oozes the sliminess of a corrupt warden intent on breaking Frank because he blames him for his ruined career. It's also Sutherland's look which makes it work, he is almost rat like in features and you get a sense that whilst in control through his brutal guards and manipulation of certain prisoners he is in fact a snivelling little slime ball, barely any different to the criminals in his care.
But there are elements to "Lock Up" which feel wrong, and the attempt to show the camaraderie between Frank and a few select prisoners such as Tom Sizemore as Dallas, Frank McRae as Eclipse and Larry Romano as First Base just feels over cooked. It's all a little too unbelievable as they go about fixing up an old car in the prison workshops, which allows for more Stallone bicep flexing to music, making it feel like a pastiche on those training scenes in his "Rocky" movies. It's an unnatural feel to a movie which tries hard to show the different elements to life in a hard prison but over does things as it searches for those lighter, even inspiring moments.
What also feels strangely out of place is a romantic element which pretty much works as book ends to the movie. It gets dropped into the main part of the movie maybe once or twice but never really gives any meaning although does pave way for a clever twist when Frank is informed that a prisoner due to be released before him is going to pay his girlfriend a visit.
What this all boils down to is that "Lock Up" is pretty much both a stock prison movie and a stock Stallone movie from the late 80s. It's nothing more than average but delivers what you expect which are action, drama and Stallone's bulging biceps whilst he fights the corrupt and evil prison warden.