- - Thursday, April 12, 2012

“Lockout” belongs to a number of familiar cinematic subgenres: It’s part prison-escape flick, part sci-fi spectacular, part glib ‘80s-throwback action blockbuster. At times, it even threatens to become a slam-bang modern martial arts movie.

But the genre it belongs to most is the good bad movie. Indeed, as bad movies go, “Lockout” is one of the better examples Hollywood has released in years.

The good bad movie is not to be confused with the so-bad-it’s-good movie that viewers of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” know so well. In those cases, a movie’s outrageous and usually unintended deficiencies become so outsized as to be entertaining unto themselves.

Instead, the good bad movie is a movie that, by most common measures - script, story, special effects, character development - fails to meet a basic minimum threshold for acceptability, yet is somehow genuinely engaging and entertaining anyway.

“Lockout” fails by almost every usual standard.

The story, about a prison break at an experimental supermax facility located in space, is so cliche- and reference- ridden it verges on intellectual property theft. Think “Die Hard” in an orbiting prison, or “Escape From New York,” but in a space jail.

The dialogue, with one major exception, is so leaden and blandly functional that it often plays like the characters are reading expository outlines rather than participating in dramatic scenes. At a crucial moment, one character actually says: “Or … we could send in one man.”

The sci-fi scenery, which consists mostly of generic metal corridors, is generally mediocre. And the special effects would be subpar by TV movie of the week standards.

Bringing up character development would just be cruel, not to mention difficult given that there isn’t any.

Yet the movie retains one key advantage: Guy Pearce, who plays the movie’s charming rogue of a protagonist. Mr. Pearce is a consistently underrated actor, and here he turns in a performance that in a just world would vault him into superstardom. It’s not just that he’s good - it’s that he’s legitimately great even in the midst of an otherwise shoddy production.

Mr. Pearce, bulked up and blessed with a fantastic arsenal of action-hero quips, is zippy, hilarious, and entirely winning despite having almost nothing to do besides flex his biceps and deliver one-liners. Indeed, Mr. Pearce’s chatty banter is so good relative to the rest of the film’s expository clunkers that one wonders if he ditched the script and wrote all his lines himself.

Granted, directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger show occasional dashes of visual wit themselves. But mostly they display a zest for rapid-fire efficiency. At first the movie merely comes across fast paced. Then it speeds up, wrapping up in a swift 95 minutes. By the end, it begins to feel as if the filmmakers had decided to provide viewers with the Cliff’s Notes to the film rather than make the entire movie.

Which was probably the smart choice, all things considered. There’s only so much bad movie one can take - even when it’s a good one.

TITLE: “Lockout”

CREDITS: Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, screenplay by Mr. Mather, Mr. Leger, and Luc Besson

RATING: PG-13 for exuberant swearing, lackluster violence, prison menace

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes


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