A more sober suspenser than prior features from hip-hop entrepreneur Master P’s No Limit Films, “Lockdown” follows three young men mistakenly sentenced to prison as they struggle to survive the brutal realities of life “inside.” Though competently made and generally credible, pic lacks the writing depth or directorial distinction needed to reinvigorate well-trod bigscreen big-house conventions, making for a meller that’s nonsensationalized yet unmemorable. Despite widescreen lensing, this looks likely to see more action in ancillary markets than at theaters.
Early scenes introduce straight-arrow protag Avery (Richard T. Jones), who’s determined to lift his wife, Krista (Melissa De Sousa), and infant son from the usual ‘hood traps via athletic scholarship. After Avery wins a regional swim meet, university talent scout Charles Pierce (Bill Nunn) turns up to suggest that dream could become reality.
Yet all hopes are swiftly derailed when Avery, along with less-studious buds Cashmere (Gabriel Casseus) and Dre (De’Aundre Bonds), are stopped in their celebratory cruise by Albuquerque, N.M., cops. Not only does their vehicle match a getaway car’s description, but the actual criminals — who’ve just killed a drive-up fast-food attendant in a failed robbery — ditched their weapon unnoticed in the innocent friends’ back seat.
The law moves swiftly, if unjustly, sending trio to the state pen. Separated, each gets an all-too-fast education in the facility’s eat-or-be-eaten power structure. Hot-tempered, overconfident playa Cash aligns himself with the African-American inmates’ gang network, which orchestrates black-market trafficking under the glint-eyed leadership of Clean Up (Master P).
Corrupt-guard allegiances, physical space and personal loyalties are strictly segregated along racial lines, with Clean Up’s crew in frequent violent conflict with their Latino and white equivalents. Avery is fortunate in getting a cell mate, Malachi (Clifton Powell), who knows the ropes, quotes Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” at length and has staked out a fragile independence from the coercive gangs.
But dreadlocked Dre is far less lucky: Forced to bunk with the leader of the white skinhead/Nazi types, he’s promptly gang-raped and copes with his brutalized “bitch” role via heroin.
Unable to protect one another, the three find themselves haplessly making enemies, accruing debts and being used as pawns in gang intrigues. Meanwhile, Krista and Pierce work hard to uncover evidence that will clear them. But even when one of the real murderers (incarcerated elsewhere on an unrelated charge) ‘fesses up, it may already be too late to save the trio, who’re up to their necks in trouble.
“Fled” scenarist Preston A. Whitmore II’s routine plotting resorts to a few too many over-expedient turns in later reels, springing a riot, a suicide, a noble sacrifice and deaths accidental and otherwise in too-neat fashion.
TV turned first-time feature helmer John Luessenhop’s workmanlike handling likewise telegraphs most major developments, while the decent, occasionally overamped performances fail to locate any fresh nuances in their fairly realistic if two-dimensional characters.
Though lack of notable directorial p.o.v. hurts, pic does move along at an assured pace. Pro but uninspired production package is much boosted by primary location shooting at the now-shuttered New Mexico State Penitentiary.
Tech aspects, including Christopher Chomyn’s widescreen lensing, are more serviceable than stylish; John Frizzell’s score, supplemented by the requisite hip-hop tracks, is rotely dependent on thumping bass-drum menace.