I love bad action movies, so from the first time I saw the trailer for Lockout, brought to us from the mind of Luc Besson, I was really hoping for another Fifth Element. Which is to say, bad, yes, but also highly entertaining. Well, parts of Lockout are very entertaining. And parts of it make you want to stab yourself with a pencil. It’s basically every action movie ever made mashed together into one largely incomprehensible space mess. It would be entirely dismissible except that back-from-the-nearly-dead Guy Pearce (The King’s Speech, Memento) gives a solid performance as Stereotypical Action Movie Dude. He’s good enough that I would definitely like to see him in other, better, action movies.
Lockout is about a guy named Snow who is some kind of government operative/spy/rogue agent. He’s basically that guy in the Dr. Pepper 10 commercials who says, “Catchphrase!” It’s important to know Snow’s name, because that’s the only name you’re going to pick up on throughout the movie. No one else has a name. The future is a place with no names. Oh yeah, it’s set in the future. This is mostly so that 1) prisons can be built in space and 2) there can be a futuristic motorcycle chase. After the futuristic motorcycle chase Snow is arrested because they think he killed some guy because that’s how these movies go. If the plucky hero comes in government operative/spy/rogue agent flavor, then he must be framed for the murder of another government operative/spy/rogue agent. And because we’re in the future, we can completely dispose of the justice system (the future = no rules) and so Snow is convicted and sentenced to 30 years to be spent in cryogenic stasis in a brand-new space prison where, wouldn’t you know it, the president’s daughter is on a humanitarian mission. All of this takes approximately three minutes.
So that’s the basic “plot” of Lockout. Snow is offered a chance to save himself by saving the president’s daughter but he also is trying to prove his innocence by connecting with his partner from the botched whatever he was doing when he was framed (that’s never clear). My main problem with Lockout is that nothing makes sense. And I don’t mean just plot-wise, although the plot is no more cohesive than a piece of Swiss cheese, I mean literally nothing ever makes sense. What does the space prison look like? I don’t really know, because it looks different in every exterior shot and the interior sets run every which way with no sense of directionality. One of my favorite things about Joss Whedon’s Serenity is the long tracking shot at the beginning that follows the main character as he walks through the ship. In 90 seconds Whedon introduces us to the ship as an inhabited space and establishes how people move through it.
I don’t need such an elegant solution from Lockout, I just need some goddamn consistency so I know what the stakes are in terms of the characters being trapped in an enclosed space. As it stands, Lockout presents a place in which there is an unlimited number of escape routes, so being trapped barely matters. And indeed, most of the movie is just Snow escaping and escaping in every direction, continuously, because he never meets a dead end. I have a hard and fast rule about film—I don’t care what kind of movie you’re making, you must deliver on the fundamentals. I’m talking about the technical stuff, the below the line work like editing, art direction, sound engineering, scoring, et cetera. You can make up for a lot of failures on the above the line stuff (acting, writing, directing) if the fundamentals are solid (this is the sole explanation for the success of the Transformers movies—they LOOK cool, so people forgive the shoddy writing, barely-there plots and indifferent acting). Lockout fails to look cool—it is a visual nightmare of crazy proportions and schizophrenic editing. One example: At one point Snow is crawling through an air duct system that is as spacious as the room below it. There’s no reduction of space! Everything just looks the same and it’s all grey and boring.
The next problem is that no one is good except for Pearce. I’m not looking for revelatory performances from actors in bad action movies, but I do need to feel like they’re participating and not phoning it in. Good-bad action movies are most often made good-bad by gleeful, over-the-top performances that you really enjoy watching, and it’s frustrating when one person is delivering but is stranded by a disinterested cast (see also: William Fichtner, Drive Angry). This is what happened to Pearce. I can’t hold Maggie Grace (Lost) too accountable because she’s an inherently awful actress who never should have been cast, but Peter Stormare (Prison Break) can and has done better. Here he appears to be sleepwalking. Of course, this goes hand in hand with the appalling writing. Besson collaborated with first time co-directors Stephen St. Leger & James Mather on the script and while they took the time to set up dozens of jokes for Snow (most of which are actually funny), they did not bother extending this courtesy to anyone else. I don’t need everyone to be cracking wise, but I do need intelligible words that somehow advance the plot to come out of the actors’ mouths.
The credit I will give Lockout is Pearce’s performance. He’s charismatic and watchable, he nails all the one-liners, even the ones that don’t work, and he’s a good enough actor to sell you this mess and not seem like he’s whoring himself out (too much). Mostly this is because he does appear to be having fun even as everyone else around him does the acting equivalent of falling into a black hole. Also he got really buff and hot so at least there was a nice gun show to enjoy. But, in the end, I wouldn’t recommend Lockout as anything other “sick with flu and can’t reach the remote while home on a Tuesday” basic cable viewing. Sorry Guy. You deserved so much more.