How many times can you lock up Sylvester Stallone? Well, I can count three Escape Plan films, Tango & Cash, him getting placed into frozen jail in Demolition Man, getting sent to the Cursed Earth in Judge Dredd and being locked up in First Blood and in prison at the start of Rambo: First Blood Part II. Oh yeah — he also gets put in the clink in Over the Top.
But if you really want to get your fill of Sly in the big house, there’s only one movie that’ll give you that for the entire running time and that’s 1989’s Lock Up.
Frank Leone (Stallone) is a model prisoner in the low security Norwood prison, enjoying work release and looking forward to serving the last three weeks of his sentence for assaulting the criminals who attacked his mechanic mentor. He even has a girlfriend — Melissa (Darlanne Fluegel, Eyes of Laura Mars, Battle Beyond the Stars, To Live and Die In L.A.) — who he plans on spending way more time with once he finishes this bid.
That all changes one night when he’s forcibly removed from his cell and sent to the maximum security Gateway Prison. It’s run by Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland), who has a grudge against our hero. It turns out that Leone had asked for one hour to see his dying mentor and that was denied, despite him only having a few weeks left to serve. Leone escaped Treadmore Prison and informed the press about Drumgoole’s civil rights violations. The incident led to the warden getting the one black mark on his record, which brought him to Gateway and Leone getting five years added to his sentence.
What follows is an entire movie of abuse against Stallone. He earns the ire of the big man on the block, Chink Weber (Sonny Landham, who was Billy in Predator). He also gets some new friends who all work together in the prison’s auto shop. There’s Dallas (Tom Sizemore in one of his first roles), First-Base and Eclipse (Frank McRae, the police captain in 48 Hrs.). First-Base goes crazy behind the wheel of the car, which the warden deals with by having Weber and his gang — look for a very young Danny Trejo — destroy the automobile.
Leone is sent to solitary confinement for six weeks and is tortured the entire time by the guards, except for Captain Meissner (John Amos), who grudgingly becomes to respect the convict and frees him from the hole.
The warden wants to make Leone snap, so he orders Weber to kill First-Base in the gym. Leone goes wild and attacks the man, but stops from killing him, giving one of Weber’s henchmen time to knife him. As he heals in the infirmary, one of the prisoners tells him that he is going to assault Melissa while Leone rots in jail.
That’s when the real escape begins, which is filled with twists, turns, double crosses and violence. Of course, this being a Stallone movie, everything ends up working out for our hero.
It’s no surprise that this film was nominated for three Razzie Awards including Worst Picture, Worst Actor for Stallone and Worst Supporting Actor for Donald Sutherland, but failed to win any awards.
Stallone told Entertainment Weekly that this was “not a film that was produced and performed with enough maturity to really make a significant impact on the audience or my career. And that’s the truth.”
Director John Flynn (Out for Justice, Rolling Thunder, Brainscan) told Shock Cinema that “Lock Up is a strange lesson in how Hollywood movies are made. Stallone had a window which means the guy was available for a certain window of time. Larry Gordon had a terrible script set in a prison. Stallone calls James Woods and asks if I’m any good as a director. Woods says “Yeah, he’s a good director and you ought to work with him.” So we have a director and a star, but no script. All we have is a theme — a guy escaping from prison. So we hire Jeb Stuart (Sam’s note — who we all remember from directing Switchback after he wrote Die Hard and Next of Kin) who was then one of the hottest writers in Hollywood, to rewrite the script and we go off looking for prison locations. Now we have a star, a theme, a shooting date, a budget, a studio, but we still have no script. So we all go back to New York City, and move into a hotel where Larry tortures Jeb and Henry Rosenbaum (Sam’s note #2 — The Dunwich Horror and Hanky Panky) into writing a script in record time. Meanwhile, I’m going around scouting prisons. We finally found one in Rahway, New Jersey. Jeb and Henry were writing the script as we were making the movie. New pages would come in every day. There was one day when I was on the third tier of a cell-block in Rahway Penitentiary and I had nothing to shoot. I had my movie star, all these extras and a great location — and the pages were on their way. So we sat around and bullshitted with the prisoners. Stallone is a smart guy and a very underrated actor. If I ever needed a better line, he’d come up with one. Stallone is a really hard worker. I had no problem whatsoever with him.”
Interestingly enough, while they were shooting in Rahway, Chuck Wepner, the inspiration for Rocky, was there as a prisoner serving time for cocaine possession. Stallone greeted him and told the other prisoners that he was the real Rocky, which was actually part of a lawsuit that Wepner brought against Stallone that was resolved out of court in 2006.
In Turkey, Lock Up is known as Free Blood, which is just an attempt to get audiences to think that this is a sequel to the Rambo films. I love that level of exploitation being used for a Hollywood film. In Hungary, they call this movie In the Prison of Revenge, which is a much more poetic title.