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‘Lock Up’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 04, 1989

Sylvester Stallone's "Lock Up" is a jailhouse movie in the same sense that "Hogan's Heroes" was about a Nazi prison camp. Actually, the film is a sort of prison fantasy, in which all the most popular boys in the cellblock have a high time together, smoking cigarettes, working on cars and spraying each other with paint guns. They share quality masculine time, these felons, talk about the future on the outside and bond on the deepest level possible. All the while you're thinking, "What is this, ancient Greece?"

Some kind of gestalt is being worked out here, but for the life of me I can't figure out what it is. If it had been called "Car Shop" it might have made more sense. Or "Cons Just Gotta Have Fun." A made-to-order number from Stallone's own company, the film isn't as crass as it might have been, and director John Flynn has given it a great deal more style than was actually necessary.

Still, "Lock Up" bears the unmistakable mark of a vanity production. As Frank, an honest working man sent to prison for avenging the brutal beating of the old man who took him off the streets when he was 14, Stallone functions here more like an old pol than an actor. His character is composed completely of audience manipulation, pitched to shore up the weak spots in his public appeal. The picture begins with a shot of him dusting off photographs of his old friend in the garage where they worked together, followed shortly by a gentle game of touch football with the neighborhood kids, and some sweet Eskimo kisses with his girlfriend (Darlanne Fluegel). If a kitten were stranded in a tree, he'd be on the case.

You only have to be half paying attention to know that all this business is a setup, and that before long, Frank's cushy berth will be traded in for one of the steamier circles of Hell. In this particular case, Hell takes the form of Gateway Prison, a maximum-security resort presided over by Warden Drumgoole (a sepulchral Donald Sutherland), who has used all his earthly powers to get Frank transferred to his care in order to settle an old score.

The result is a contest of wills in which Drumgoole has his guards and his agents in the yard attempt to break Frank's unbreakable spirit by harassing, gang-tackling and torturing him in every manner imaginable. Aside from the level of brutality, which is extreme even for a Stallone film, there is nothing remarkable on display here. As in "Lethal Weapon 2," the subhuman savagery against Frank is necessary so that he can exact an even more vicious payback. As for Stallone himself, the sadomasochistic fascination he has with the brutalization of his characters is almost peculiar enough to hold our interest, but when the beatings stop, his face empties out and we're left to find other diversions.

Unfortunately, there aren't many. Sutherland's performance consists largely of having his hair cropped short and giving his Mephistophelian eyebrows an upward sweep. Aside from John Amos, who brings a burly stoicism to the part of Drumgoole's head cop, the other cast members turn their roles into cartoon bits. A montage celebrating the glories of body work and engine repair and the company of good and strong men is truly inspiring. Watching it, I felt an nearly uncontrollable urge to knock off a liquor store.

"Lock Up" is rated R and contains strong language, violence and guys painting on each other.

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