Lockout wants desperately for you to believe that its hero, the wise-cracking Snow (Guy Pearce), is a bad enough dude to save the president’s daughter. If creating an action hero were like ordering sushi a la carte, Snow would be the type of man who checks off a lot of boxes: Ex-CIA, wears leather jackets and sloganeering t-shirts, spouts rapid-fire jokes, uses big guns, has an active disinterest in forming relationships with attractive women, habitually smokes. Snow smokes despite a friend’s protest that it’s the future and nobody does that anymore. That’s how cool Snow is. He’s such a bad dude, he could likely rescue two president’s daughters.
Its pretty clear that directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, working from “an original idea” by Fifth Element director Luc Besson, were trying to create a hero akin to those played by men like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Kurt Russell in John Carpenter action opuses like They Live and Escape From New York, but Lockout fails him, setting Snow loose in a world that is both needlessly complex and shockingly predictable. It’s not that Snow sleepwalks his way through a standard action plot, but that he’s robbed of agency while doing so. If you’ve seen just one movie where one man takes on a prison full of crazed inmates with lives and his freedom and a bit of cash on the line, you’ll know his every move, two or three moves in advance.
But let’s say you don’t. Snow, then, is just your typical ex-CIA operative, a shady character with an unknown past. He’s apprehended by the government on suspicion that he’s trading secrets to hostile governments, but the key to his innocense lies in a briefcase that’s been stashed in a New York City locker. They’re about to put Snow away for a long time when news comes in that the president’s daughter is marooned on a super maximum-security prison asteroid. Naturally, he’s the only one who can save her.
The prisoners, by and large, are cannon fodder, muscleheaded goons who either have tattoos or don’t, who are either shot to death or blown up. The exceptions are Alex (Vincent Regan), the leader of the prison revolt, and Hydell (Joseph Gilgun), Alex’s psychotic brother whose aims are to cause chaos and rape Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), whom Snow has been tasked with saving. The smart brother wants to use his ship full of hostages to leverage a return to earth. The insane one just wants to murder them. Snow wants to find his partner, who was last in possession of the briefcase, aboard the prison. Warnock tasks her one-man army with rescuing the hostages. These goals clash, to say the least.
Lockout, thankfully, has a few good ideas to go along with its stock plot. Chief among them is the maximum security prison in space, where the world’s most dangerous criminals are kept. One would think this a dangerous place for the president’s daughter to visit, but the men and women in lockup on MS: One have been put to sleep and are stored in stasis. She is on a humanitarian mission, hoping to determine if the process is damaging to the human brain. Through a process of bad prisoner vetting, Hydell is the one who is woken from his 30 year nap, and it is he who starts the prison riot. Mace (Tim Plester)—Snow’s partner—has been imprisoned on the asteroid, and when they unexpectedly find him wandering the halls, it quickly becomes obvious that the process unravels the mind. For those of you who’d lose hope for Snow’s chances of recovering his briefcase, fret not, for dementia is no match for the power of a MacGuffin.
For what it’s worth, Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace function well in their roles as macho tough guy and tougher-than-she-looks millionaire hostage. Their chemistry is the manufactured one of most movies like this: At first, the president’s daughter sees her rescuer as a pig. Then they get to know each other. Finally, they’re kissing. Grace’s evolution as a character here fills the requirements of any pubescent boy: First, the girl must be seen as mostly useless, then kinda cool, the sort of girl you can play video games and make-out with. Pearce, lip-curled and demeanor churlish, makes for a good avatar himself. The “romance” between the two never gets more serious than the exchanging of somewhat significant looks, but that makes a certain amount of sense, too: Given a woman like the one Maggie Grace plays, most men wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.
Luc Besson’s “original idea” is one that many boys have had, the further adventures of some iconic-seeming hero. It stitches together many of the aspects that made films like Die Hard and Escape From New York successful, but it’s all flasshes of wit and verve, with no real heart and no satisfying resolutions. At the end of Escape From New York, Snake Plissken makes a conscious decision to plunge the world into technological darkness. Here, Snow moves from obstacle to obsticle like a rat motivated by a piece of cheese. The rat, at least, is driven by primal urges. Poor Snow is an archetype adrift in a high-concept collage of other movies, all of which would at least do him (and the audience) better by merely presenting his options as those of a free man. The only character here with some ambiguity is Peter Stormare‘s snaky Secret Service chief, but his role is to stand by idly or, when the situation calls for it, to yell at Snow, the poor guy, for fulfilling his obligations as the lone badass on an asteroid full of killers.
One almost has to admire Besson for the enviable ability to get his every waking thought turned into a Hollywood film. Lockout is hardly challenging material, but it’s the kind of thing that plays well on basic cable; something familiar, something kinetic, something that works well as a movie or as background noise. Pity those who end up taking Snow as their avatar, though. There’s a universe of possibility out there, do we still need to settle for the guy with the pack of smokes, the five-o’clock shadow? Can’t our bad dudes be more than bad dudes? Lockout suggests “no,” but then again, it continuously falls short of pilfering the best aspects from the movies its emulating. It doesn’t want to join those films so much as it wants to let you know that it’s playing with the same toys.
Lockout. Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger. With Guy Pearce (Snow), Maggie Grace (Emille Warnock), and Peter Stormare (Langral). Released April 13, 2012, by Open Road Films.