LOCK UP arrived in 1989, a curious time in Stallone’s career. These were the ROCKY V, RAMBO III days, a transitional dip between his ‘80s peak and his brief 1993 uptick of DEMOLITION MAN and CLIFFHANGER, which would ultimately mark the end of his golden action hero career. It came out the same year as TANGO & CASH, which also put Stallone in prison. The guy just had jail on his mind.
It’s not exactly a prime era for Stallone to play a Regular Joe type character, and that’s what makes LOCK UP so unique. Despite looking like Stallone, his Frank Leone is not an action hero but rather a mild-mannered guy whose superpower is just basic positivity.
The film starts us out with a fun misdirect. We meet Stallone as he flirts with his girlfriend and then plays football with a bunch of random kids, a very common activity among non-convicts. He says it’s time for him to go to work. She drives him to a prison and kisses him goodbye. He changes clothes and exchanges pleasantries with all the guards. He must be a guard as well, right? Nope, it’s just a super pleasant prison for softies. Apparently, he was doing some kind of work release program. The point is, it’s a nice place and everyone loves him.
But then, in the middle of the night, Leone is violently transferred to a shit hole prison where he’s going to get his ass kicked for the next two hours. We think it’s a mistake but then Donald Sutherland shows up to confirm this is no mistake: it’s vengeance.
Stallone and Sutherland have an exposition-off. It goes like this: Stallone was doing time in Sutherland’s old, regular prison. His buddy on the outside died and Stallone was denied permission to attend his funeral. So with just a couple weeks left on his sentence, he escaped. His lawyers presented a real sob story about this which professionally shamed Sutherland and transferred him to a shitty prison while Stallone got to live out his five-year sentence in a Mr. Rogers prison. Sutherland has him transferred to Hell for his last six months and will spend the whole movie torturing him into fucking up and getting a much longer sentence. We learn this in about two minutes of yelling, and if I'm being honest I'm siding with Sutherland.
So Stallone is in a rough spot. But he doesn’t let it get him down. Almost immediately he starts making friends like Tom Sizemore and Frank McRae and helping everyone out with streetwise aphorisms. He takes a young hotshot named First Base under his wing. Somehow, the prison has a mechanic shop and they all build a car together. It’s ridiculous, but what the heck, it’s a lot of fun.
There’s so much charm to this cast. Sizemore is super young and hyper, constantly bouncing around Stallone and leaning too close to his face when speaking. Frank McRae, who I remember most in roles where he yells a lot, kills it as the nice and friendly Eclipse. On the other side, we have John Amos as the head CO, lending dignity to every goddamn thing he says. Danny Trejo is supposedly in this as well, but I didn’t catch him, unless he’s the guy playing Donald Sutherland.
LOCK UP runs a bit on the long side, but I appreciate all the time it takes setting up Stallone’s prison crew and the tasks that keep them from going crazy while behind bars. In fact, this portion of the film goes on so long you almost forget its central conflict completely.
That comes in the form of another actor I am very happy to see, PREDATOR’s Sonny Landham, who basically acts as the Warden’s hired goon to egg Stallone on. It’s all fun and games at first. He berates Stallone into joining a football game as an excuse to kick the shit out of him, which of course Stallone turns around into a victory that wins him prison yard respect while also recalling both the kiddy football game from the film’s first act AND that dead goat game Stallone plays in RAMBO III.
But things must come to a head eventually. When even six weeks in the hole won’t break Stallone, Sutherland goes nuclear and has his buddy First Base murdered via bench press (to the chest, not the neck like I was expecting because it’s 2020 and our shit is violent).
Even that doesn’t do it. Next he lets Stallone have a conjugal visit with his girlfriend, which he interrupts as soon as they start taking their clothes off. That humiliation doesn’t do it either. Finally, he has a guy tell Stallone he gets released in two days and the first thing he’s going to do is rape his lady. THAT does it.
LOCK UP has a prison break, but it isn’t a prison break movie. It really doesn’t care about the machinations and planning of Stallone’s escape. And he doesn’t escape anyway, the whole thing is a distraction allowing him access to Sutherland, who he straps to an electric chair and forces to confess. Amos hears this confession and everything works out from there in a way that is massively difficult to believe, but super satisfying to watch anyway. Sutherland lives. This isn’t a movie where prisoners fear getting f’d in the b, but I don’t think that applies to wherever Sutherland’s character is headed. Also, his name is Drumgoole. That's such a good villain name.
Stallone finishes his time and leaves prison to the cheers of his fellow inmates. He then starts a career as a prison escape expert.
LOCK UP is so forgotten, you can’t even rent it online. It must be purchased. I now own LOCK UP. I probably won’t watch it again, but I do think it stands out well among Stallone’s ‘80s run. He’s not a cop. He’s not really a badass. He’s just a guy, trying his best to stay positive in a shitty situation who seems to improve the lives of everyone around him. Except for First Base. That guy gets super killed. Oh, and Tom Sizemore. He dies too. But everyone else.