Luc Besson’s producing career has been so geared toward lean, tough genre films that it’s somewhat apt that he’d ape—or, if we’re being kind, pay homage to—John Carpenter’s preeminent sci-fi actioner Escape from New York with his latest, Lockout. Introduced being walloped in the face during an interrogation for making mom jokes, his cigarette getting comically bent out of shape in the process, Snow (Guy Pearce) is a latter-day Snake Plissken, framed for a national security crime he didn’t commit. On the cusp of being sent to maximum security space prison MS-1 for a thirty-year stint in cryogenic stasis, Snow is instead offered a get-out-of-jail card when MS-1 is overrun by the inmates and the president’s visiting daughter, Emilie (Emily Grace), proves in need of rescue. A bicep-bulging, chain-smoking, wiseass remark-spouting antihero, Snow takes this gig—offered to him by Secret Service agent Shaw (Lennie James), against the wishes of Shaw’s ruthless colleague Langral (a typically over-the-top Peter Stormare)—not out of nobility, but because his partner is on MS-1 and knows the whereabouts of a briefcase that’ll exonerate him. So away Snow goes, though not before a flashback to his initial incarceration, which involves a bike chase and shootout awash in insanely blurry, second-rate special effects that, while exhibiting the whiplash frenzy of a racing video game, are indicative of the film’s overarching CG deficiencies.
Who cares about subpar computer-generated work, however, when Pearce is a one-man cartoon badass spectacle all to himself? Never has the actor seemed this unchained, rolling his eyes with amusing insouciance, slumping his shoulders in a sign of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me aggravation at his task, and firing off sarcastic bon mots with pinpoint precision. Pearce’s Snow may not be as uniquely iconic, but in terms of sheer go-to-hell attitude, he’s a relatively worthy successor to Kurt Russell’s Plissken, and contributes a great deal toward elevating the rest of these otherwise routine proceedings. Directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger (working from their script penned with Besson) are incapable of making Grace more than a blandly feisty romantic foil for Pearce, and their fundamental good-versus-bad dynamics are so heavily weighted in Snow’s favor—his adversaries are a dull scumbag (Vincent Regan) and his unintelligible, milky-eyed psycho brother (Joseph Gilgun)—that it’s hard to believe the protagonist has a real fight on his hands. Then again, a sense of inevitable triumph is also fostered by the fact that, though MS-1 supposedly houses 497 inmates, Lockout reduces its few-against-many scale by focusing only on Regan’s villain and his handful of henchmen, making Snow’s mission feel like an eminently manageable one.
Mixed into the mayhem—which takes place in a variety of generic metal corridors, air ducts, and zero-gravity shafts—are some lame political jabs at Democrats’ penchant for raising taxes and disdain for firearms, but Lockout‘s anti-establishment ethos is of a more basic don’t-trust-The-Man sort, with Snow as a paragon of DIY heroism. Far more engaging is the gleeful idiocy of the plotting, which is highlighted by Emilie’s bodyguard committing suicide to provide her with one extra minute of oxygen (an absolutely ridiculous sacrifice), Snow bringing Emilie back to life via stabbing her in the eye with a needle that produces spasms he dubs “the Lambada,” and a climactic stratospheric freefall of such ludicrousness that it could only be viewed as a tongue-in-cheek joke. Throughout, Mather and Leger seem to know that they’re playing fast and loose with logic in order to generate some action-comedy electricity, and yet their refusal to come out and overtly make fun of their material helps Lockout manage to be knowingly stupid without ever succumbing to actual wink-wink self-consciousness. Bogged down by a third act of more straightforward guns-and-explosions nonsense, it’s nothing more than a sporadically efficient, energetic genre retread, but one that, courtesy of Pearce’s devil-may-care bravado, still proves to be moderately satisfying B-movie cheese.