Just a Part of The Job
“I don’t like hurting you,” snarls Langral (Peter Stormare). His interrogatee, the repeatedly whomped and bruised and bloodied Snow (Guy Pearce), has a ready and aptly snarky answer, another question: “Is that why you have him do it?” Whomp.
This start to Lockout is promising. As it introduces a character you’ve seen before, whether he’s named Sam Spade or Snake Plissken or Frank Martin. He expects to be battered and beleaguered and he can take it, because he knows he’s smarter than the guy delivering his whomps (or, more likely, ordering their delivery) and that intelligence (or wiliness) will win in the end.
That this end takes some time to come can be dreadful or fine, depending on whether the mechanics leading to it are as smart as the cool guy hero. In this case, with writer-producer Luc Besson on board, the mechanics are pretty sweet. First, that first scene, which consists primarily of close-up shots of Snow being knocked out of frame. When the camera cuts to Langral or peeps down on the room more generally so you can see the whomper nearby, the space is clearer, but not because you need it to be. You know the lay of this land as soon as you see Snow’s face, a veritable map of pain, ennui, and cunning. He will be hit, in this scene and others, and by the end of the film he will bring forceful justice to those who abuse him—or else some suitable and eminently deserving stand-ins.
Snow’s route to this justice is predictably outrageous and often entertaining. It’s 2079, you see, and in this gnarly future, bad guys aren’t just locked up, they’re shipped out to a supermax prison in space, to a rather far, far away Guantánamo named MS-1. Here they’re not only kept in teeny boxes, but they’re knocked out (see Demolition Man, where the other scary detail about the future was Dan Cortese as a torch singer for the universe’s only restaurant franchise, Taco Bell). This reduces fighting, raping, and smuggling within the prison and also allows the government to use inmates as “guinea pigs” for various Dr. Mengele-style experiments.
This last phrasing is uttered by Emilie (Emily Grace), the very do-gooding daughter of the US President Warnock (Peter Hudson), who has signed off on these technically illegal practices. Emilie, pure of heart and blond and lovely, doesn’t know he’s done this and so, as the film begins, she’s landing at MS-1, where she means to interview inmates about aftereffects of the drugging and other aspects of their treatment at the facility. One of these interviews, with the scrawny and prodigiously tattooed Alex (Vincent Regan), goes very wrong. Though he seems dim and addled, he’s angry enough—and the MS-1 staff is arrogant enough, as they always are in these situations—so he escapes the interview room, with a gun, and ensures the release of all the other 496 inmates and take everyone else hostage.
Before you can say Alien³, the inmates are running the prison and the president is on the line. You know what comes next: Snow is assigned to rescue Emilie. Though she believes he should also be rescuing other hostages, say, the staff doctors who’ve been conducting monstrous experiments (skulls broken open, bodies dissected), Snow stays pretty much on mission, except when he doesn’t. That is, he has his own ulterior reason for infiltrating MS-1, which involves tracking down a prisoner who was Snow’s colleague, who has important information concerning Snow’s own case—the one that had Snow, a former CIA operative, being hammered by Langral’s minion at film’s start.
Such details are what they are in such films, and Lockout treats them as such. That is, it trots through them while on the way to its main interest, which is not Snow’s backstory, his ethical foundation or even his evolving romance with Emilie, but rather, his awesome capacity to kick ass. He has some generic targets lined up, including the completely psychotic Alex and his older, slightly more thoughtful brother, Hydell (Joseph Gilgun), also incarcerated at MS-1.
The ongoing facing off between these frankly feeble bad guys and Snow (who has Emilie with him for the bulk of the escapade, for a few minutes passing as a boy prisoner) offers repeated opportunities for Snow to break heads and scurry around in vents and hallways. This basic plot is made even more basic when an additional ticking bomb angle is introduced: MS-1 is “unstable” (No kidding!) and is on a collision course toward earth, resurrecting the specters of Jerry Bruckheimer and yes, Bruce Willis, just in case you’d forgotten his many versions of the guy Pearce is playing here.
If Lockout means for you to remember the versions you’ve seen before, of Snow and itself, it’s not lazy about it. Slammed together with fast cuts that leave out explanations and action that might be helpful in another movie, it’s propulsive and even respectful. It knows you’ll keep up, and when it does give away big fat clues, it does so as a joke (a couple of handwritten “secret” notes might as well be shouted out loud, they’re so un-secret). The chase and action scenes, like the rooms and levels on MS-1, are both obvious and abstract. Snow is that too, a tough guy and an emblem of tough-guyness.