In 1981 horror icon John Carpenter co-wrote and directed the cult classic "Escape from New York" starring Kurt Russel as Snake Plissken; a disgraced elite special forces operative who is sent into Manhattan island prison to retrieve the President of the United States being held captive by the exiled convicts. 31 years later action producer extraordinaire Luc Besson gives us "Lockout", starring Guy Pearce as Marion Snow; a disgraced elite special forces operative who is sent to space prison MS One to retrieve the President's daughter (Maggie Grace) being held captive by the exiled convicts. Unfortunately for "Lockout", this is where the similarities between the two films end.
Like its predecessor, "Lockout's" main draw is its premise. 500 of the world's worst convicts in stasis, suspended above our heads in a prototype space station, are let loose after the world's worst weapons check procedure fails and convict Hydell (Joseph Gilgun) unleashes his fellow inmates (modern day TSA would never have let the story make it this far). Conveniently the President's daughter is on board MS One for humanitarian endeavors relating to prisoner treatment, and is of obvious high priority to the commander in chief.
This is what consumers have been sold to get them in the theater. But before we even make it up to MS One and its bevy of nondescript criminals, we're forced to understand the plight of our hero and quip-spitting-machine Marion Snow. Snow has been set up by someone, and his contact Mace stashed a briefcase and knows something. Mace is sent to MS One and this gives Snow enough incentive to venture into space on the rescue mission. All this within the first half hour. It's bloated and unnecessary, and bogs the movie down when the plot and action is in desperate need of a kick later on. Subsequent revelations about the conspiracy are vague and uninteresting. The side plot is a complete distraction from what should be a thrill ride of an experience.
Guy Pierce and Maggie Grace actually keep the movie afloat halfway through, even if their constant bickering comes across as juvenile and not flirtatious as the filmmakers obviously intended. Their dialogue is atrocious, their characters wholly undefined and their decision making skills at a third grade level, but the two are still captivating on screen. Pierce gets by on his charm, charisma and reputation. The nerdy Ed Exley of L.A. Confidential has been replaced by a Jason Statham meets John McClane hybrid anti-hero, constantly keeping himself entertained and resourcefully solving problems. It's far too much too often though, and Snow is hard to believe as an actual human being towards the end of the film. He has an unfeeling robotic nature to his personality as he keeps taking hits, and its hard to really care about his predicament.
However, Grace's Emilie Warnock actually has a character arc throughout the film. It's ironic to realize the writing team found something somewhat interesting to do with a character nobody came to the theater to see. I found myself desperately wishing the movie had been about Emilie's experience solely on this vessel of doom and her stepping out of her father's shadow for what she believed in. It's a far more compelling narrative than the cut and paste job the final product ends up becoming.
The setting itself is sadly forgettable, the character's locations on the ship aren't clearly laid out, and the sense of spectacle a space adventure should provide is lost. Not only that, but the FX work is terrible. An early futuristic motorcycle chase sequence is remarkably poor, and sets a grim tone for what's to come. Fortunately the major CGI work isn't seen too frequently and the characters get to hang out in dimly lit made-for-mugging hallways and corridors. This future world isn't very characterized or interesting.
Though my biggest problem with "Lockout" stems from its main threat: the convicts. Who are these guys? Where did they come from? What's their background? Are any of them high profile enough to attract major media coverage or demand respect from peers? If so, why? Why are the majority of them hanging out in the bowels of the ship instead of finding ways off it? None of what is done with these characters is interesting or makes any sense within the plot whatsoever. There are clear escape pods throughout the station that Snow seems to have no problem activating, yet not one convict makes a break for them. The only personalities we're given amongst the lot of evildoers are a pair of (British/Scottish/Irish?) brothers who are two polar opposites. Joseph Gilgun's manic insanity as convict Hydell is clearly an attempt at an iconic madman villain, but is simply another ripoff from other better portrayed lunatics in countless action films. A severely missed opportunity for the film, where is Simon Phoenix when you need him?
It's very understandable why "Lockout" would want to borrow from this well worn formula established in Escape from New York and add a few unique twists. Generally these types of films, slight deviations of specifics from popular film formula, are able to entertain and excite even if the audience understands what's coming. The predictable and formulaic nature of the story serves as catharsis for fans of the genre. Comfort food to the action movie fan in all of us. But producer Luc Besson, best known for his action credentials showcased in "Leon: The Professional" and "The Fifth Element", and directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger have failed to create anything of substance or fun and let a good idea fail with them.