Luc Besson’s career is a testament to the regenerative power of a snappy logline. The filmmaker has a great talent for teasing stories out of wonderful, attention grabbing premises, no matter how thin a plot they may hide underneath – Leon’s ‘hitman teams up with an orphaned girl to get revenge on her parents’ killers’, or Lucy’s ‘woman gains superpowers after taking a drug that allows her to access 100% of her brain capacity’ – great examples of premises that set your mind running with possibilities. In the strange case of the sci-fi action flick Lockout, which Besson wrote and got a story credit for before passing it off to largely unknown action directors Stephen Saint Leger and James Mather, Besson built a film out of perhaps the most kitsch and eye-catching logline of all – ‘a disgraced operative is forced to rescue the President’s daughter from a futuristic prison.’ Sound familiar? And not just because it’s the kind of weirdly brilliant story pitch a group of stoner bros might yell out late at night in a dorm room somewhere. It might ring a bell because it’s lifted almost entirely from John Carpenter’s sci-fi classic Escape From New York – something Carpenter and company noticed as well.
In 2016, Carpenter won a lawsuit alleging plagiarism against Besson and his production company EuropaCorp. Per the court ruling – ‘The court nevertheless noted many similarities between the two science-fiction films: both presented an athletic, rebellious and cynical hero sentenced to a period of isolated incarceration —despite his heroic past— who is given the offer of setting out to free the President of the United States or his daughter held hostage in exchange for his freedom; he manages, undetected, to get inside the place where the hostage is being held after a flight in a glider/space shuttle, and finds there a former associate who dies; he pulls off the mission in extremis, and at the end of the film keeps the secret documents recovered in the course of the mission.’ Yikes. Truthfully, even outside of the thin premise, by-the-numbers storyline and the fact that Besson and his co-writers simply added ‘but, y’know, in space’ to Carpenter’s film, Lockout is for the most part an awful, awful movie – poorly directed, terribly shot, filled with cheap, squirm-inducing sexism and some of the worst CGI this side of The Scorpion King. Plagiarism it may be, but Escape it most certainly is not. However, it does have one blessed saving grace – the wondrous charisma of Guy Pearce, action hero extraordinaire.
Guy Goddamn Pearce, guys. How is it that of the young stars of L.A Confidential it was he that ended up not arising to super-stardom? The man suffers from the same curse that seems to plague Ethan Hawke – that of being constantly, tragically underrated, despite being one of our most startlingly chameleonic performers. He can anchor twitchy Nolan classic Memento with lonely grace, or walk away with the entirety of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert in a single glorious flick of a feather boa, or turn in one of the finest performances of this young century in The Rover. With Lockout, Pearce relishes the chance to dig into the charismatic action hero roles of the '80s (namely that one '80s film to which it adhered a little too closely) that would have been chum in the water for the likes of Bruce Willis or uh…Kurt Russell. There is more than a little Snake Plissken in Pearce’s simply-named ‘Snow’ (because first names are for pussies), but also a fair bit of that other great action hero, John McClane, as well.
In Lockout, Snow is framed early on in the film and forced to choose between going to space prison (or ‘MS-One’, as it is named in the film, but ‘Space Prison’ is just so much more enjoyable to say) and rescuing the daughter of the President from the same prison, who happens to be visiting as part of a mission to investigate claims of unethical treatment at the prison just as a riot breaks out, which is totally something the President’s daughter would do. Pearce comes closer than most to attaining the John McClane standard by understanding what made McClane such an everlasting and iconic hero – his constant physical vulnerability. Sure, McClane is a badass, a quick thinker, and murder with a witty quip, but what really makes his material sing is the fact that he seems like an actual cop dealing with something way above his paygrade, something for which the danger is always intensely present. Like McClane, Snow is imbued with the same elements – the quipping, the sweaty macho-man charisma (without taking it too far like some others – looking at you, Fast and Furious guys), but also the feeling that he may actually be overmatched with this one. As he faces down dodgy bureaucrats, tussles with villainous, weirdly Scottish prisoners, and trades barbs with the President’s daughter Emilie (Maggie Grace – who between this and the Taken series really has the market cornered for endangered daughters in action film roles), Pearce is clearly having a ball being the coolest guy in the room, the one you trust to see you through even though he is, for all intents and purposes, a bit of a dick.
It must be said that Luc Besson bounces back like few other filmmakers. The man is responsible for a number of truly great and influential films – Leon, The Fifth Element, parts of La Femme Nikita – earlier work through which Besson had laid a claim that he had a true artist inside him, a mad, pop-surrealist fantasist whose regenerative creativity was seemingly limitless. It is surely these achievements (and perhaps the box-office success of Lucy) what allowed him to attain what must have been an astronomically large budget to create Valerian, his latest sci-fi adventure, undoubtedly the riskiest big-budget science fiction experiment since John Carter (lest we forget) – despite a filmography with as many outright failures as diamonds in the rough. Among these Lockout is far from the messiest film Besson has been involved in – from the sound of early reactions, that may well be Valerian – though considering subsequent events it is probably not the one he will look back upon fondly. Aside from its aping of earlier, better films, it is also trapped by its punchy premise – unable to build on it in any truly satisfying way outside of a brainless popcorn watch. Films don’t always necessarily have to be anything more than ‘fun’, but considering the strength of the performance at the centre of Lockout, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been next, and wish for more for Guy Pearce: Action Hero Extraordinaire.