Sylvester Stallone’s career was on a high around the time Lock Up, one of his lesser known pictures, came to bear at the tail end of the 1980’s.
The same year as the popular Tango & Cash, three years after the towering success of the unforgettable Rocky IV, and a year after the guns blazing bravado of Rambo III, Lock Up sees Stallone riding his natural charisma and innate mix of machismo and vulnerability to diminishing returns. A direct attempt to challenge himself beyond the two major franchises which have marked his career, Lock Up suffers from simply being quite bland, rote, underwritten and stocked with cliches. Stallone’s spiritual successor a quarter of a century later, Escape Plan, at least has the virtue of being absurd. Lock Up seems to want you to believe it’s all quite plausible.
In truth, it’s about as high concept as films like this come. Stallone’s mechanic, Frank Leone, is a good guy who just happens to be in jail, serving his time as he awaits release and a life with his girlfriend, only to become the victim of the sadistic, vengeful Warden Drumgoole, of the infamous Gateway prison – a maximum security prison where the lowest of the low are sent to rot in hellish conditions. Can Frank find strength in adversity and gain the respect of his fellow prisoners? Can he expose Drumgoole’s cruelty and corruption before he ends up dead? Can he be reunited with the woman he loves?
It’s a Stallone movie. Of course he can. It’s just that this time, the journey along the way isn’t nearly as thrilling, charming or action packed as usual.
In a brand new project, I am going to be looking at the complete cinematic, feature-length filmography of a director in the run up or after a newly-released piece of work.
In the first Filmography project, in the wake of his new film Greta to be released in April 2019, I’m looking at celebrated Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan…
Neil Jordan never quite made a film like We’re No Angels again and you can understand why by the end of his misfiring gangster comedy. In any other circumstances, We’re No Angels could, maybe even should, have been a classic Hollywood comedy that marked Jordan out as a household directorial name.
This was not to be. An even more significant critical and commercial failure than High Spirits, worsened by the fact a great deal more money was involved in the production, Jordan quickly seemed to become aware that the road to Hollywood was not paved in smash hits. We’re No Angels had a script by celebrated playwright David Mamet, high profile A-list stars in Robert de Niro, Sean Penn and Demi Moore, and the biggest budget ever handed down to a production made in British Columbia. Expansive sets were constructed to bring the mid-1930’s prison and small town locations to life. Paramount believed they had the alchemy of a huge hit on their hands.
The opposite was true. We’re No Angels could end up being Neil Jordan’s most forgettable picture and a sign of why he and conventional Hollywood were never going to be a perfect match.
James Cameron is an unusual director, in many ways, and The Abyss underscores this quite keenly. Despite the fact Cameron has made some of the biggest motion pictures of the last almost four decades, you consistently still feel the pull of his Roger Corman-training, his B-picture origins on movies such as Pirahna after spending years as a Corman student, helping put together his beloved but schlocky contributions to cinematic history.
Cameron took plenty of those lessons, those touchstones, and threw them into his movies across the 1980’s & 1990’s with such arrogant bravura, such relentless chutzpah, that he crafted movies which by all accounts probably shouldn’t have been as critically successful as they were. The Terminator in 1984 is a B-movie with the style, smarts and cutting wit to rise above its origins, while Aliens saw Cameron perhaps at his egotistical directorial best, remarkably for only his third picture. The Abyss feels like his first attempt to make a film which can’t be defined, clearly, as a James Cameron movie, and it’s probably why it’s amongst the worst of his efforts.