Lambasted by critics and shunned by moviegoers, Lock Up got swallowed up at the box office during its brief, four-week run during August of 1989, and seeing the film 25 years later, not much beyond potential camp value beckons for reconsideration. However, even the desire to revel in director John Flynn’s ridiculous blending of sentimentality and prison-yard brutality is short-circuited by a script that dulls the proceedings into a male melodrama of the most grating variety. The premise is sheer absurdity: With only a brief period remaining on his prison sentence, Frank Leone (Sylvester Stallone) is transferred to a maximum-security prison overseen by Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland), who seeks vengeance since Frank bad-mouthed Drumgoole’s reckless treatment of prisoners during an early part of his sentence, resulting in Drumgoole’s transfer to Gateway Prison. Pissed and determined not to let Frank off easy, Drumgoole assures Frank: “This is hell and I’m going to give you the guided tour.”
Unfortunately, even this goofily violent promise is something Lock Up has little interest in actualizing, as the proceedings afford Frank relative freedom around the prison, even befriending a team of inmate mechanics, including Dallas (Tom Sizemore) and Eclipse (Frank McRae). Moreover, Flynn opts for gooey piano music as the compliment for Frank’s reveries of being reunited with his girlfriend, Melissa (Darlanne Fluegel), who blunders around the film screaming and repeating, “What have you done with Frank!?,” nearly every time she appears on screen. Naturally, any initial setbacks from a happy ending are steadily squelched within the film’s entirely canned proceedings, as Stallone swings his fists with the force those veiny biceps suggest, knocking Jordan Lund’s sadistic Officer Manly (!) permanently on his ass, while Drumgoole’s plot is finally discovered by the lawful Captain Meissner (John Amos). Cue the shitty music and a concluding freeze frame, and Melissa’s back in Frank’s arms, ready to ride off into the sunset.
But all of that sweat, bench-pressing, and man-barking cannot simply go quietly into that good night; the evaluative temptation with such testosterone-fueled genre sagas is to overlook their insufficient thematic elements and write them off as simply dumb or, in a best-case scenario, dumb fun. There’s nothing fun, however, about Lock Up’s absent social interests, which are made particularly deplorable through a refusal to address any semblance of a socio-political zeitgeist, specifically the spread of HIV and its steadily proliferating presence in American prisons. In fact, it ignores issues of prison rape and homosexuality altogether, aside from homophobic remarks from taunting prison guards, like when Frank, instructed to “roll your tongue around,” is disgustedly asked by the interrogator: “You trying to kiss me?” This homophobia is not used as an outlet to interrogate actual concerns, but a means of restricting such discourse from taking place; knives, shivs, and barbells all appear as phallic finishing moves for brute-force conflicts for appeals to genre templates, with stock characters afforded no means to humanize or sexualize their supposedly tumultuous plights.
That’s because Lock Up sexualizes the male physique without bothering to deal with its actual consequences as a gesticulating, pulsating mass. There’s a repressive, almost fascistic logic to the way bodies operate in Stallone’s star vehicles from the era, where his arms and torso are given the same lustrous close-ups as his equally bulbous ’80s counterparts like Schwarzenegger and Van-Damme, yet a capacity for blood-soaked uppercuts, not meaningful caresses, is all Lock Up seeks as its end. Restricting Melissa, too, as a stock character of boundless desire for Stallone’s unactualized, but supposedly dynamic, sexual prowess merely makes her the pacifist, domestic woman concurrent with ideologically repressed sexual inclinations. The preference for philological fantasy, where a phrase like “rock-hard” lacks sexual connotations, defines Lock Up’s sickness as a lie, in which there’s no “monster” inside the prison walls and pop culture has no place in real-world affairs—both equally disturbing ignorances.
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