Stallone Month: Lock Up

Lock Up is a strange lesson in how Hollywood movies are made…[W]e have a star, a theme, a shooting date, a budget, a studio, but…no script.” — John Flynn, director of Lock Up

I don’t know how often films are made on the fly, but in putting together Stallone Month, it seems that it was common for projects Sly worked on to barely make it to completion. Another commonality in these films is that Sly worked very hard to keep the projects together. Whether it’s Eye See You (later this month), or Tango & Cash (tomorrow), or today’s film, the people who worked with Sly are effusive in praising him for the efforts he made to make sure a movie came off. Still, production troubles rarely bode well for a film.

Lock Up, the 1989 film from director John Flynn, sees Sly in prison. He plays Frank Leone, a good guy who ended up on the wrong side of the law. Viewers can piece together his backstory from scattered instances of exposition, but the basics are as follows. Frank was sent to prison on an 18-month stretch for assault, but since Frank is this flick’s good guy, of course he had a reason for beating someone up.

Near the end of his sentence, Frank busts out of prison because of the unendurable cruelty of the warden. His escape highlights the poor conditions in the prison, hurting the warden’s career. Meanwhile, Frank gets more time tacked on to his sentence, but because of the public service he performed in exposing the warden, he gets to serve out the remainder of his time at a minimum security facility, including weekend furloughs. Yeah, sure. But, hey, it’s the movies, right? Anyway, that’s all backstory.

In the actual plot, Frank is again nearing the end of his sentence, and things are going smoothly. That is, until the old warden, Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland), now the warden of maximum security Gateway Prison (played by East Jersey State Prison in Rahway), somehow manages to get Frank transferred into the big boys’ prison. He makes it clear to Frank when he arrives that he is determined to make Frank’s life a living hell. There are only six months left in Frank’s sentence, and every single day of that will be hard time. Drumgoole has put the word out to convicts and guards alike that Frank has no protection. Frank is in such a bad spot that it’s possible he won’t survive the remainder of his sentence.

Frank’s chief tormenters are Sonny Landham as lifer Chink Weber and Jordan Lund as prison guard Manly. Between the two of them and their accomplices (including Danny Trejo in Chink’s gang — see if you can spot him), Lock Up becomes not just an exercise in Frank’s endurance, but the audience’s. As the film’s runtime grows, so does the severity of Frank’s torture. He is beaten, deprived of water and sleep, emotionally tortured, has hope dangled in front of him only to be cruelly taken away...all the good stuff a sadistic screenwriter can think of that’s not permanent. That is, there’s no hacked off limbs or gouged out eyes, but Frank’s life in Gateway is still bad.

The first third of the film feels like a throwback to an earlier time in cinema. This is chiefly due to the performances of a pair of Sly’s costars, Tom Sizemore and Larry Romano. They play fellow prisoners and seem dropped into the film straight from the 1940s or ’50s. Sizemore takes on the role of sycophantic sidekick while Romano plays the wiseass kid who’s too dumb to know when he’s in trouble. Rounding out the good guys is Frank McRae as a big dude named Eclipse. They’re no different than the cast of any prison flick.

By the middle of the film, however, with all that happens to Frank, it’s clear this isn’t White Heat. The film gets harder to watch as Frank’s deprivations increase. But denouement does come, and with it, a happy and totally unrealistic ending. But, that hardly matters. By the end of this film, I was just glad I didn’t have to watch anyone messing with Frank any longer.

The cobbled-together nature of the screenplay is evident while watching the film. A positive of this is that there are filler scenes showing prison life that are good at establishing mood and place, but are also an attempt to cover for a thin script. It seems that Flynn and company had a hard time expanding on the theme they had. The result is a brutal little movie with an uneven and unrealistic plot. Lock Up is a hard watch.