“Lockout” is about a troubled prison in space, starring Guy Pearce as an ex-secret agent all muscled up and throwing as many one-liners as punches. The mission is improbable, the film’s logic loosey-goosey, and there are many explosive shortcuts — as in, if it doesn’t make sense, just blow it up big time and maybe the audience won’t notice. Ah, but they will.
The film is based on an idea from espionage/action specialist Luc Besson, whose interest in the genre seems to know no bounds — writing, directing, producing, sometimes merely thinking. Some of that inspiration, and execution, is better than others — “La Femme Nikita,” “The Fifth Element” and “Taken” fall into the better category — with Besson directing only a few of his brainstorms. He turned over “Lockout” to up-and-coming Irish filmmakers James Mather and Stephen Saint-Leger, known primarily for the low-budget, sci-fi wizardry of “Prey Alone,” a short they wrote and directed that created an Internet stir.
“Lockout” marks their feature film writing/directing debut, and for all of its rough edges and dead-ends, there are still flashes of that indefinable quality — promise? talent? — that makes you hope they get other chances to try for more top-to-bottom polish and panache.
The movie is set some 60-plus years in the future, but a lot of things remain the same. Pearce is Agent Snow. Make that ex-agent, since he discovered some double-crossing in a CIA-like operation — but instead of getting a promotion he ended up doing jail time for murder. “Lockout” opens as agency investigators are trying to beat him into revealing where to find a briefcase that holds some state secrets. But it only serves to bloody his face, strengthen his resolve and sharpen his comic timing.
Meanwhile, Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is the U.S. president’s do-gooding daughter who is dressed to the nines to tour the maximum-security prison orbiting not too far from an international space station. Her aim is to interview the inmates who serve most of their sentence in stasis — a medically induced sleep state — and she’s looking into rumors that it has, well, drawbacks, early dementia among them.
After some bonehead moves by the Secret Service agent attached to guard her, all hell and most of the prisoners break loose and, you guessed it, there’s only one man who can infiltrate the place and get her back safely. But it won’t be easy, because in addition to the trillion-mile shuttle trip, the bulky spacesuits and the prison mayhem, Snow and Emilie turn out to be like oil and water. So basically nothing you haven’t seen before.
With the inmates taking over the asylum, lots of hidden agendas, opposites out there attracting and some pretty impressive pyrotechnics and high-risk stunts, the filmmakers had a lot to work with. But they only get about halfway there and despite the jeopardy at every turn, your palms never sweat.
Still, the filmmakers’ inventiveness with special effects and action, which landed them this job, gives the film a good deal of visual punch. As Snow and Emilie try to outwit the most lethal gang of inmates, they seem to face a firefight around every corner and the slick high-tech lines of the spaceship are a perfect backdrop for the shootouts.
It is entertaining to see Pearce try his hand at laid-back and laconic, since he’s often tightly wound and slightly tortured (“Memento” comes to mind). And Lennie James, as Shaw, the one agent in Snow’s corner, is excellent in this very solid ensemble. But mostly “Lockout” is lost in space.