- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

No one expects a movie about prison life to be a picnic, but "Lockdown" is a nightmare. Care to see a man pass a plastic bag through his bowels and then fish the object from the commode?
Step right up, tough guys.
Every sordid thing you have ever heard about state incarceration rampant rape, beatings, slashings, stabbings and, for good measure, murder is shown here in gruesome detail. There are corrupt guards, too, of course, who help inmates smuggle and deal drugs.
We're not in Kansas anymore. We're in New Mexico, in the state penitentiary that saw the deadliest prison riot in U.S. history 137 killed there in 1981.
First-time director John Luessenhop, a Georgetown University law school graduate, filmed "Lockdown" in this now-defunct penitentiary, and if there ever was a place that could use a woman's touch, this is it. Everything about it suggests extreme maleness: a return to the state of nature, Thomas Hobbes' war of all against all.
The one civilized exception is Avery, played with confident dignity by Richard T. Jones. Avery is a straight-and-narrow kind of guy, a talented swimmer with a college scholarship on the horizon. He's devoted to creating a stable environment for his girlfriend, Krista (Melissa DeSousa), and their young son. But then comes the pinch.
A case of mistaken identity and a planted weapon land Avery and two neighborhood friends, Cashmere (Gabriel Casseus) and Dre (De'Aundre Bonds), in prison, wrongly convicted of murder.
"Lockdown" turns into a case study of prison pathology. It's an unsparing account of the racial tribalism, uncontrollable violence and guard corruption that characterize American prison culture today.
Mr. Luessenhop stirs up this cauldron and tries to make a serious point: Prisons make good people bad and bad people worse.
Although its main protagonist, Avery, is innocent and upright as Tim Robbins' character was in "The Shawshank Redemption" "Lockdown" is just as interested in the guys on the margins of morality, the ones who could go either way.
Cashmere, a volatile drug dealer on the outside, becomes even fouler on the inside, aligning himself with a cabal of drug smugglers in violent competition with a rival gang. The basically decent but physically weak Dre is gobbled up by a flagitious strongman (David Fralick) who rapes him at will.
As affecting as "Lockdown" is, it stumbles outside the prison setting. While Avery languishes and Cashmere schemes, Krista and the college talent scout who took notice of Avery before his arrest try to clear the three convicts' names.
Their canny amateur gumshoe work is a little too contrived, and it's never clear how much time is elapsing. We don't know if weeks, months or years are passing and feel no sense of urgency about Avery's fate.
Prison life is not something many of us think about all that much. We joke about the sodomy, and we periodically debate such things as using prison labor, but we don't often contemplate the goings-on in those high-security fortresses on the rural outskirts of town.
During the '90s, after 30 years of runaway crime, America arrested more bad guys and built more prisons. Crime declined dramatically. That's a good thing.
Still, after seeing "Lockdown," I couldn't help thinking: People who have lived like that are among us.
What are they doing now?
** 1/2
TITLE: "Lockdown"
RATING: R (Brutal violence, including sexual assaults, simulated intercourse, pervasive foul language and graphic drug use)
CREDITS: Directed by John Luessenhop. Produced by Jeff Clanagan, Stevie "Black" Lockett, Mark Burg and Oren Koules. Screenplay by Preston A. Whitmore II. Music by John Frizzell.
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes.

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