Much has been written about the genre de-construction of Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, and lately it seems that the surefire way to be called original or groundbreaking is to approach genre from a vantage of total self-awareness and meta irony. I enjoy this kind of film as much as the next film snob, but I do sometimes tire of this age of irony. On the flip side there are films like The Raid, which receive praise partly for sheer technical craftsmanship, but also for taking genre and bringing it down to basics. Making an action movie? Sure, let’s pay lip-service to character and plot, but then get to the action quickly and keep that action going uninterrupted for as long as possible. Sometimes this approach can be fun, as in the Crank series, but there’s a natural limit to going for nothing but action, and The Raid breaches it. Films like The Raid essentially misunderstand the reasons we watch action films in the first place. Action sequences are great, but they are not an end to themselves, they form the punctuation for story and character. This is something that the Luc Besson-produced Guy Pearce vehicle, Lockout, understands perfectly.
Lockout is not ironic, though its main character certainly approaches situations with casual irony and intense sarcasm. Lockout also contains fairly non-stop action without forsaking narrative or character. But what makes Lockout stand out above and apart from other action films of its ilk is the clear self-awareness, not of the film, but of the filmmakers. Lockout is a wildly derivative work. The plot is basically Escape from New York IN SPACE! The main character, Snow, is basically John McClane boiled down to only his most sarcastic quips. The narrative turns of the film are often ridiculously contrived, and I can’t help but feel key scenes were cut out causing character motivations to lack sense in numerous instances. Some of the action is also really badly done with terrible CGI effects. Yet, through all of these clearly problematic elements, Lockout succeeds at being a solid action film by sticking to what actually makes the action genre work.
Going back for a moment to the Neveldine/Taylor opus, Crank, it’s important to examine why that film holds up. In my opinion, it’s the inventiveness in the form of total anarchy. The world of Crank is one in which anything can happen and that sense of anarchy gets paid off big time. Now, anarchy isn’t the only way to go about this, but to my mind the greatest action films are the ones that combine a strong story with the feeling that things can go wrong at any point.
Take, for example, Die Hard. I’d argue that Die Hard is the very best action film ever made, but when you really think about it there’s isn’t that much action, and the action that’s there is rarely sustained. The action comes at the points in the story when John McClane loses control of his situation or is attempting to gain control. The action is something that happens to him or is a tool at his disposal. At one point he gets caught a bit off guard by Hans Gruber’s men and this leads to the famous “SHOOT THE GLASS!” sequence. In another scene, McClane needs to make a move, and so he decides to explode C4 down the elevator shaft. These moments are wild, and always the result of wild developments in plot.
Now, Lockout is not even close to as good as Die Hard. It’s problems are too numerous. But it does get that one basic element right. Seeing Guy Pearce parachute out of Low Earth Orbit from an exploding space prison is obviously a joyful experience, but what makes it work within the context of the film is that Pearce’s character is pushed into that situation and forced to take action. Ridiculous action. Unrealistic action. But it works.
And by the way, a similar sequence exists in the better space action film, Star Trek. The JJ Abrams film contains a scene in which three characters skydive from space onto a sky drill, and then fall off that. The scene in Star Trek is undoubtedly better than the one in Lockout, but only because its purpose is more clear, and the stakes of the action extend beyond the characters in the action scene itself. In the end, though, you’ve got characters pushed into a high stakes dilemma which creates narrative punctuation in the form of action. It’s exciting, invigorating and ultimately satisfying.
Compare this with The Raid, which has a plot so threadbare that it assumes the mere fact of its premise—a group of police officers caught in a raid-gone-wrong, trying to get out of an apartment building alive—is enough to provide justification for the action. And it is, but it only goes so far. It doesn’t take long for the film to lose the impact of that premise. The stakes disappear into a wash of men in rooms being burst in on by other men… FIGHT! Rinse. Repeat. It’s notable that the best, most intense sequence in the film is one that actually has no fighting and is completely reliant on one of the films few plot machinations. One police officer is injured and the protagonist brings him into a room for hiding. They end up hiding inside a wall when the bad guys come in to search it. One of those bad guys figures out that the wall is hollow, and begins stabbing through it with a knife, almost killing the one character we somewhat care about. It’s a scene that would feel at home in Die Hard, while the rest of the scenes feel like something more akin to the simple visceral thrills of watching someone play Call of Duty. Cool for a couple of rounds, but eventually quite boring.
The Raid attempts to bring the action genre “back to basics”, but it forgets that the basics of the genre are not the masturbatory action sequences themselves, but how those sequences fit into a larger story. Lockout doesn’t make this mistake. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent the genre. It doesn’t comment on the genre. It doesn’t even strip down the genre. Instead, it takes pieces from other movies, casts Guy Pearce to make the main character fun and memorable, and proceeds to re-construct the puzzle that is the action film rather than de-construct it.
The inciting incident of Lockout occurs during an interview conducted by the President’s daughter of a prisoner on this maximum security space prison. It’s a scene that in essence is mind-numbingly stupid. Two Secret Service agents are, for some bizarre reason, guarding the prisoner. One of them had been told not to bring any firearms into the room, but decides to hide a gun in his sock. It’s contrived and it makes no sense, and the outcome is inevitable. Yet, in some backwards way, that very contrived inevitability gives the film a sense of spontaneity. At any point any character might do something completely stupid that will cause bad things and fun action beats.
And then there are the curveballs. Many great action films have them. Something happens that sets up essentially a no-win situation. In this case, the space jail is going to be destroyed no matter what. At first it’s just that an attack might have to be launched against the jail as a last resort. Eventually that attack seems like the only way to go, not just because of the riot going in the jail, but because of the threat the jail represents to the planet. During all the craziness, something crashes into the jail. Turns out it’s the International Space Station. This leads to the wonderfully silly line, “The International Space Station didn’t crash into the prison, the prison crashed into the International Space Station.” Due to some indiscriminate killings, the one engineer in charge of keeping the prison in orbit is now out of commission and the prison is falling out of the sky, with a potential debris field over the entire Eastern Seaboard. These kinds of crazy situations could be stupid, but they create exciting complications for our main characters. The only way to stop the prison from crashing into the planet is to blow it up, which leads that parachuting-from-space sequence. I don’t know that it literally makes sense, but within the context of the film it feels right.
Guy Pearce’s Snow is also an important factor in all of this. As written, Snow is nothing but a sarcastic asshole, but Guy Pearce plays it with the kind of brash confidence that morphs a one-note character into an iconic hero with clear traits and a fun attitude. His sarcastic quips are genuinely funny, and the way he approaches obstacles is with a special kind of ironic disregard. The riot on the prison is a huge threat, but his mind is set on only one goal. Hilariously, that goal has nothing to do with the mission to save the President’s daughter. He’s actually looking for a friend of his who has an important piece of evidence that could help clear his name after a CIA mission-gone-wrong. Snow’s narcissism is off-putting to the people around him, but his charms are nigh inescapable. His character also goes through the necessary development where he begins by not caring whether the President’s daughter survives and by the end is doing what he can to save her life.
I wouldn’t call Lockout a great film, but it IS great fun. Its makers understand why the action genre works, and though they don’t do anything particularly new within the genre, they know which beats to hit and they throw in a high quotient of unpredictable inventiveness that makes it consistently engaging. On the one hand, my enjoyment of the film comes with a bit of a wink and a nudge. The premise is silly and so are a lot of the plot machinations, but Troll 2 this is not. Nor is it Cabin in the Woods. Lockout approaches its genre without any sly winks or knowing nods. Everything in it is present straight up. It may be ridiculous, but it doesn’t try to do much more than create a fun lead character and stick him in a ridiculous and fun action setting. In an era of ironic genre commentary and de-construction, Lockout, much like Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, is a refreshing example of the continued vitality of simple action genre tropes.