Stallone In Chains: Lock Up (1989)
Nobody has perfected the art of rising, falling and reinventing themselves quite like Sylvester Stallone.
Despite building himself up from obscurity as lovable palooka Rocky Balboa, it’s in the fall where Stallone truly seems to thrive; underdogs like Rocky or John Rambo or Freddy Heflin in Copland (1997) whom Stallone artistically connects with the most. As Rocky and Rambo became larger than life icons side-by-side with their star, the ability to relate to them became a struggle. We don’t often look to 'roided out freaks of nature as reflections of ourselves but, as fun as it is to see Arnold or Dolph crack skulls, Stallone’s superpower lies in those sad sack, puppy dog eyes. You can’t help but see a bit of yourself in this schlub; like, maybe if you just put on just a little bit of muscle, you too might be able to save the day. Or, at the very least, nobly go down swinging.
By 1989, Stallone had largely given up any pretense of being an everyman. Even when squaring off against perfect specimen Ivan Drago in Rocky IV (1985), any real sense that he might lose was long gone (RIP Apollo, you definitely died in vain). Rambo was no longer the disassociating PTSD victim trying to make sense of it all. During the Reagan reign, he was little more than a globetrotting merc, mindlessly gunning down foreign boogeymen. Don’t get it twisted, Sly’s movies during this period were indisputable bangers. Cobra (1986) is a masterpiece of large caliber mayhem, but Sly's egotistical bloat was also starting to set in. It wouldn’t happen for another half -decade or so, but The Italian Stallion’s first fall from grace was imminent. Taking a bird’s eye view of his career, one almost wonders if he was sensing it himself, because sandwiched in-between these high octane rippers is John Flynn’s Lock Up (1989): the first movie in forever where Stallone is consistently getting his ass credibly kicked.
On its face, Lock Up reads like a typical Sly joint. Model prisoner Frank Leone is six months from being released when, in the middle of the night, he’s violently transferred to a supermax prison run by the fascistic Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland). Stemming from shared history between the two - Leone escaped Drumgoole’s previous prison, leaving him in disgrace - the Warden vows to make Leone’s final six months a living hell. You’d be forgiven for assuming Stallone would spend the next 90 minutes fighting his way through goons and guards with a setup like that. However, with a hulking Sonny Landham (Billy from Predator ) threatening to crack his skull at every turn, the threat of tipping into mayhem is certainly omnipresent.
Still, Lock Up is a shockingly quiet, and quite often sweet, film that feels wholly at odds with Stallone’s cultural presence as the '80s transformed into the '90s. Frank is a family man, a man of honor and, despite being built like a brick shithouse, a man not too keen on getting into scraps. Much more akin to Stallone’s finest creation, Rocky, Frank prefers to keep his head down and his nose to the grindstone, doing what he needs to do to get by. Even when his last six months in the clink are thrown into disarray and he’s being given what Drumgoole calls a “guided tour of hell", Frank seemingly has no desire to rock the boat. Of course, when he reaches his wits' end, this charming chap explodes into violence, but even still, this isn’t the gun toting justice by any means necessary Stallone the world had become accustomed to.
Marion Cobretti would’ve taken Drumgoole’s head clean off and looked great doing it. Frank, via a much “softer” Stallone, only wants to get into Drumgoole’s head, merely to let him know he’s won. What makes their final confrontation so jarring - Frank screaming through saliva, threatening to pull the lever on the electric chair and burn Drumgoole alive - is that this performance has completely erased our presupposed notions about Stallone. Years and years violence should’ve prepared us for a Stallone who has no qualms about roasting this pencil pushing psychopath to a crisp. It’s remarkable, then, that over the course of the previous 90 minutes, Stallone buries all of that and fully convinces you that he’s a man incapable of such brutality. You’ve become so attached to kindly, goodhearted Frank that, even though he’s been pushed to his limits through unspeakable torture and dehumanization, you can’t bear seeing him become the monster Drumgoole says he is; so much so that it’s a genuine relief when it’s all revealed as a ruse to get a confession of guilt and put this sadist behind his own bars where he belongs.
To that point, Lock Up contains some of the best work of Sly's career, yet the lion’s share of what makes this little curio work is stalwart cinematic carpenter, John Flynn. Most famous for Out for Justice (1991, probably Steven Seagal’s finest outing), Flynn is the kind of steady hand that could plug right into genre-adjacent fare and give it the gravitas it might miss elsewhere. With a litany of punchy titles to his name like Scam (1992) or Best Seller (1987), you always knew what you were getting with a Flynn picture, at least superficially. It’s that earthy grit he imbues every movie with that you'd never expect once they start playing.
Think of his best work, Rolling Thunder (1977). At first glance it’s nothing more than a exploitative revenge thriller but, when taken in tandem with a dynamite Paul Schrader script, Flynn delivers a devastating and bleak look at a post-Nam America where disillusion was the only game in town. The only way to “win” is to sink lower than the guy with a gun to your head. That’s Schrader’s bread and butter, but Flynn’s of a similar flock. Perhaps a more meat and potatoes man, technically speaking, but Flynn’s equally fascinated by warriors of honor, forced into untenable situations, and seeing how far he can dip them into the mud before they break.
Stallone’s Frank Leone is that man of honor, and it takes everything inside him not to break his code of conduct. Flynn puts him through the ringer; to the point that it would’ve been comical if it weren’t so sad. (Credit those puppy dog eyes on Stallone for always pulling at our heartstrings). If there’s anything holding Lock Up back on any level, it might just be this bizarre juxtaposition. The bleak existentialism Flynn was trading in with Thunder or his equally terrific The Outfit (1973) was far out of fashion. Audiences weren’t looking for moral ambiguity, they wanted hulking heroes doling out swift black vs. white justice. Lock Up attempts to make bold statements about the fallacy of prison as a means for rehabilitation, but every time it steps up to that line, it sadly pulls back. Drumgoole’s guards are a pack of sadistic brutes, beating Frank at every turn and even threatening to rape his wife. But just as you’re starting to think we’re getting a statement on corruption from the top down, John Amos’ lead screw has a change of heart, and it turns out there were just a few bad apples. It's "good guys on both sides" bullshit that undercuts the movie's true meaning.
That’s the trouble with attempting a more muted Stallone picture in the middle of his monstrous heights. Even when you can feel him trying to pull it back, and as Flynn weaves a subversive web, it was never going to escape the schmaltz of its period. A twinkly score over memories of his wife, a cutesy montage of Sly and the jailhouse boys rebuilding a car, a mentorship struck up with a younger prisoner; all torn apart at the expense of Frank’s psyche. Our underdog hero suffers so much devastation that there’s no reason he shouldn’t pull the lever and make Drumgoole ride the lightning. In 1974, that’s how Flynn ends this. In 1989? Not a chance. So, what you’re left with is a Frankenstein’d prison picture that alternates between brutality and sentimentality, never quite finding sturdy middle ground or letting Frank learn much about the kind of man he is. Because the man he was going in is the same man that comes out: a goddamn hero.
None of this is to say Lock Up doesn’t work. Far from it. It's still a John Flynn prison picture starring Sylvester Stallone. We only got one of those and the one we got is a wildly entertaining jaunt that never dares to truly ask the tough questions, only tepidly tease them. Perhaps that was enough, because while Stallone enjoyed that next half decade of gargantuan success, the fall was coming. Rocky V (1989) was met with series’ worst reviews, a string of awful comedies followed (remember Oscar ? Me neither), and though Cliffhanger (1993) and Demolition Man (1993) offered major bright spots, Stallone felt cooked. For over ten years, he toiled in the dregs until he was forced to punch his way back to the top with Rocky Balboa (2006), a legacy sequel that showed the big lug could be lovable again.
The lone, unassailable classic in those ten years? Copland. Featuring a career best performance from our doofy brute - nothing to sneeze at when his costars are De Niro and Keitel - Copland is a twisting tale of police corruption where the only one not on the take is the quiet, unassuming chief of a small town’s police force, played by a chubby, slow Sly. Nabbing him rave reviews, not just for his performance but for his willingness to explore parts of his persona we hadn’t seen, Copland feels unlike anything he’d given us up until that point.
That is, of course, if you let a gem like Lock Up slip through the sands of time. Make no mistake, the former is far better than the latter. Still, it’s an undeniable treat to see an on-top-of-the-world Stallone taking stock of his career, trying on the everyman shoes Rocky and Rambo had long since traded in for cold dipped trainers and combat boots, and acting his enlarged heart out. Lock Up can’t help but to be a product of its star’s moment but it’s a fascinating object from a director with an inimitable point of view. If nothing else, seeing Sly rally the troops in the muddiest game of football ever played while Sonny Landham tries to knock his head off is a hell of a good time.
Brandon Streussnig is a Staff Writer for Secret Handshake whose work has appeared in The Playlist, Fangoria, and Polygon.