Lockdown opens with a swimmer slicing through the water. An unlikely start for a movie about prison, the image is also acutely appropriate, as the film tracks one man’s descent into the disturbing waters of the U.S. penal system. Avery (Richard T. Jones) moves quietly and powerfully through the peaceful, deeply blue pool, as if in a dream.
From here, the camera cuts to a bedroom, panning happy couple photos and trophies on its way to framing Avery, lying in bed with his girl, Krista (Melissa DeSousa). Together, they look forward to a future that will take them — and their young son Jordan — far beyond their neighborhood. That afternoon, a scout will be at Avery’s swim meet; having taken some time off to support his family, he now hopes to go to college on a scholarship.
Like that first shot in Lockdown, this initial situation is unusual, and promising. It appears that the film, directed by John Luessenhop and written by Preston A. Whitmore II (who made the thoughtful Vietnam War drama, The Walking Dead), will offer characters and motivations you haven’t seen before.
And then: the clichés. A series of crosscuts to simultaneous scenes bodes ill. Cashmere (Gabriel Casseus) first appears putting it to his blond-wigged girl, who makes all sorts of “bad girl” noise. When one of his street sellers comes calling, Cash drops everything, grabs up his pit bull, and heads off to take care of bidness. “Why you always so amped, man?” asks the dealer. “Time is motherfuckin’ money,” comes the utterly predictable answer. Mad that his minion doesn’t have all the money he owes, Cash kicks him down the steps and dismisses him, thus: “Punk bitch!”
Having demonstrated his hyped-up meanness, Cash drives off in his white convertible Mustang to pick up Dre (De’Aundre Bonds), a quiet, vaguely anxious kid who works a regular job. Cash asks Dre for the millionth time to come in with him, and Dre explains, again, that his mom would kill him.
As these two drive to see their boy Avery swim, it’s clear that they’ll bring trouble. The twist is that they are not directly responsible, but only act the part. While the film’s primary threesome are down at the meet, a couple of thugs round the way, Broadway (Sticky Fingaz) and his soon-to-be-dead buddy, roll up on a fast food drive-in, canted smoky close-ups indicating their menacing, drug-induced delirium. (Danger! Danger!) When the girl at the window won’t give them all her (obviously meager) money, they shoot her in the back, in excruciating slow motion, then drive off to dump their weapon in a car that looks like theirs — Cash’s Mustang.
From here, the plot goes where you know it will. Avery and Krista go to the meet, he wins his race and makes good time, and the scout, Charles (Bill Nunn), tells him that he’s on his way — three schools will be interested. As soon as Avery and Krista embrace in celebration, his boys appear in the white Mustang. Cops pull them over, Cash behaves badly, and, a brief courtroom montage later, the three friends since childhood are on the bus to a New Mexico prison.
Once inside, each is assigned to a different sort of cellmate. Cash hooks up with Clean-Up (Master P, also executive producer on the film), the joint’s major drugs and goods mover. And Dre ends up with Graffiti (David Shark Fralick), the resident Aryan asshole who makes the poor kid his bitch. And Avery gets a mentor, Malachi (Clifton Powell), who schools him by reading from Invisible Man: “Mine is a warm hole, and I say this to you because it is incorrect to assume that because I am invisible and live in a hole, I am dead.”
Avery painfully comes to terms with his own hole, and even finds some ways to make rudimentary sense of it in the raging insanity of lockdown. He takes a stand in defense of Dre, eventually extending himself beyond a standard, if understandable, self-interest. And he learns some important lessons about self-sacrifice.
The film also gives Avery help that his friends do not have: though he suffers brutal abuse from guards and fellow prisoners (Clean-Up sets the tone when he roughs him up on the basketball court), he is also fortunate to have folks working his case on the outside. Krista collaborates with Charles, whose daughter happens to be an attorney with spare time to spend on her dad’s interests. This lucky combination happens on a series of narrative contrivances; for instance, they find a ready-to-be-turned Broadway, in prison for life for another murder, as well as a judge who is willing to read new documents, no questions asked.
Still — and while these character types and plot points are overly familiar to anyone who’s seen a prison movie or an episode of Oz — Lockdown takes its political and ethical subjects seriously. Its examination of gang affiliations and brutal hierarchies in prison includes attention to the contraband economy that sustains violence and criminal activities. Rehabilitation, in other words, hardly seems the penal system’s goal.
True, as Charles observes, “It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s prison.” At the same time, the egregious abuses that occur in prison are real, part of a systemic racism and degradation, as much as they are instances of individual deviance. Melodramatic and sincere, Lockdown makes this case sensationally, but it does make it, in ways that distinguish it from sensational prison flicks like Seagal’s trippy Half Past Dead (2002) or Stallone’s histrionic Lock Up (1989). Lockdown, in ways less stylized than Walter Hill’s Undisputed, underlines that the institution is premised on abuse, cruelty, and a presumption that all prisoners, guilty or not, “deserve” what they get, for being in wrong places at wrong times.
And, no small thing, the film also boasts many fine performances, in particular by Jones (best known recently for his co-starring role on Judging Amy), Powell (Dead Presidents), and young Bonds (Junior in Get on the Bus, currently incarcerated, in real life, for manslaughter, a point that the PR machinery is emphasizing, including an interview with him, from prison, on the official website).
And Master P, last seen on the big screen for a minute in Undisputed, acquits himself admirably. Recently, he’s been concentrating on his son Lil’ Romeo’s career, stating in interviews that he wants to move away from the street-tough, bling bling focus that characterized his own work as an MC, and toward “community” and “family” concerns. He’s apparently putting his money where his mouth is. Though Lockdown has been waiting for theatrical release for some two years, it demonstrates that his longstanding interest in film production (I Got the Hookup, Foolish) is evolving into an increasingly straight-up business.