Guy Pearce is just one of those actors who excels in every role he takes, in every genre. Whether remaining out of the mainstream is his personal career choice or just a twist of fate is anyone’s guess, but I definitely would like to see more of him. Filmmaker Luc Besson had a promising career thirty years ago, with independent dramas like Le Dernier Combat, Subway and The Big Blue before becoming an international sensation with action films like La Femme Nikita, The Professional (aka Leon) and the sci-fi Bruce Willis vehicle The Fifth Element. He’s returned to experimental filmmaking with films such as Angel-A, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and most recently, The Lady, but still keeps one foot in the action genre by writing and producing features for other directors. With Karate Kid creator Robert Mark Kamen, Besson co-wrote B-movies that include the Transporter series starring Jason Statham and the Jet Li vehicle Kiss of the Dragon, before striking gold with the 2008 thriller Taken. That film not only catapulted its lead Liam Neeson to megastar status, but struck a primal chord with audiences with its simple story of a man who would do anything to rescue his kidnapped daughter.
In Lockout, Taken’s Maggie Grace has been kidnapped yet again, but the circumstances are entirely different. Here, she’s the entitled daughter of the President of the United States, held hostage in a prison by a group of inmates with government agent Pearce given the task to sneak aboard and save her. The thing is, Pearce doesn’t really care much about whether he saves Grace or not and neither do we. Oh it has nothing to do with her performance, Grace plays the damsel in distress so well, her comment about Pearce’s attitude – “Is being you always this interesting or is it a part-time job?” – is one of the sharpest lines in the movie. It’s just that in this type of action picture, what the hero is going after isn’t as interesting as how he goes about it.
Framed for the murder of his mentor, in a spry opening action sequence, Pearce is about to be shipped off to the brand new space station/prison MS One for a thirty year sentence on ice, when he’s awarded to chance to rescue Grace in exchange for his freedom. Making the deal and playing the traditional “Good Cop” and “Bad Cop” roles are government heavies Peter Stomare and Lennie James. These two wonderful actors stick to the script so well that it’s fairly obvious one of them played a hand in setting up Pearce and even easier to spot which. Grace’s personal mission to defy her father and uncover the barbaric process in which prisoners are frozen, inadvertently leads to several of them waking up, starting a riot and taking hostages all in the space of about…eh, ten minutes. The powers that be on the ground are too dumb to realize that the prisoners haven’t yet figured out just what a prize Grace really is and even need a hotshot rogue like Pearce to point it out to them.
Lockout doesn’t follow the Die Hard formula to the letter and if it weren’t for the strong and likable Pearce, this movie would be dead in the water. At times if feels as if it might have worked better as a video game, especially with some of its low grade visual f/x. Other times, you get the sense that Besson might have been flipping channels one night, saw that Escape From New York was on and thought to himself, “hmm.” There are also moments where Lockout feels like one of those Golan-Globus productions distributed by Cannon Film back in the eighties and quite frankly, that’s actually not a bad thing. The production values are decent, the picture is lit in such a way that it looks more expensive than it actually is and the fact that the plot keeps moving is a plus because the film can’t afford a dull beat. I wouldn’t say the film pays homage to the action films I mentioned, but there is one hilarious bit concerning the name of Pearce’s character that fans of the Sly Stallone eighties action flick Cobra, may find appealing.
Though we’ve seen them play these roles before, and in a greater capacity, Stormare and James barely register along with Vincent Regan as the leader of the revolt. You might remember Regan as Captain Artemis from Zack Snyder’s 300, who got “blood drunk” after he saw his son decapitated by Persians. Regan plays sinister and barks orders very well, but as the main heavy we don’t even see him get in so much as a fist fight with lead protagonist Pearce. More threatening is fellow prisoner Joseph Gilgun, who not only has a washed out eye that’s unbearable to look out, but a psychotic crush on Grace that puts them all in danger.
It’s amazing just how good Pearce is in this film, though it comes as no surprise. Equipped with a small arsenal and wearing a T-shirt that reads “Warning Offensive”, Pearce treats everyone he meets with disdain, yet brings a certain freshness to his generic role of the anti-hero who can take a beating during an interrogation, yet never suffers from any bruises or swellling, eventually forced to save the world in the end. Okay, he doesn’t actually save the world, but he gets Grace out of hot water on more than one occasion including a clever bit where he disguises her by shearing her locks and dyeing them with a crude mixture of “coffee, motor oil and water from the toilet”. Though directors Stephen St. Leger and James Mather co-wrote the film with Besson, they’re smart enough to know that they didn’t have much to begin with and wisely focus on Pearce and his performance. There’s goofy fun to be had here, despite the fact that the film poorly follows a generic formula and with the exception of Pearce’s strong personality, hardly anyone registers here. And you know what they say, sometimes a little personality can go a long way.