A mass breakout at an outer-space Alcatraz yields a few cheap thrills and an amusing leading-man showcase for Guy Pearce in “Lockout.” Tossing off cynical one-liners like a spacewalking Sam Spade, Pearce sets the pace and tone for this quick-and-dirty offering from Luc Besson’s Europacorp factory, which tackles a nifty futuristic premise with bargain-basement efficiency and a deadpan, devil-may-care attitude. It’s an initially invigorating tactic that proves slapdash and unsatisfying over the long haul, reducing a potentially rich sci-fier to the level of a halfway decent time-killer that should enjoy a brief but profitable B.O. voyage.
Working from a script they wrote with Besson, debuting helmers Stephen Saint Leger and James Mather establish a darkly playful mood from their opening shot of hard-boiled ex-CIA operative Snow (Pearce) getting punched in the face by a government heavy. It’s the year 2079, and Snow, framed for the murder of his old partner, is sentenced to 30 years on MS One, a maximum-security prison hovering in orbit.
But Snow’s sentence turns into a rescue mission when Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), a humanitarian worker investigating reports of inmate abuse aboard MS One, inadvertently triggers a prisoner uprising and is taken hostage. Complicating matters further, Emilie’s father happens to be the president of the United States, a development that calls for a reluctant Snow to infiltrate the spacecraft, beat up a bunch of uglies in orange jumpsuits, and get the first daughter out of harm’s way before the government blows the prison higher than sky-high.
In short, the setup is basically “Escape From New York” in space, and in its swift, mechanical execution, “Lockout” lives up to that intriguing but derivative logline. There’s a pleasing single-mindedness to the way the script gets down to brass tacks initially; the exposition is minimal, the key details lightly tossed off as the story maneuvers from twisty neo-noir to cut-rate space opera. Absent the lavish spectacle or weighty subtext typical of much speculative fiction, the pic compensates for its lack of heft or texture with a few inventively nasty setpieces, as well as a pair of memorable lead villains among the inmates played by Vincent Regan and a particularly skin-crawling Joseph Gilgun.
Yet the film’s chief asset and sustaining force is the relentless stream of quips and putdowns that constitutes the bulk of Pearce’s performance. Rattling off his one-liners with quick-witted panache, Pearce not only projects an amusingly world-weary resignation but also signals the viewer that nothing here is meant be taken too seriously.
Indeed, the performance feels more like a verbal feat than a physical one; refreshing as it is to see this versatile actor caked with grime, sweat and blood, he isn’t allowed to give the sort of satisfying, butt-kicking demo that would herald the birth of an action star. Snow spends less time fending off attackers than he does arguing with the headstrong Emilie, and while Grace more or less holds her own opposite Pearce, their combative, tough-guy-meets-tough-girl banter isn’t exactly the second coming of Bogart and Bacall.
At a certain point, the pic’s unpretentious B-movie style, like its generic and uninformative title, seems to indicate a simple lack of ambition. Suspense is short-circuited before it can begin to develop; even a cleverly conceived anti-gravity battle sequence is over too quickly to really register, a casualty of an editing scheme that tends to abbreviate the moment of impact. The tension goes slack even as the pacing remains relentless, and the climactic unraveling of story threads is the result of fairly desultory detective work.
The Serbia-shot production reinforces its no-nonsense approach with appropriately grubby visuals; spaceship interiors seem to have been influenced by abandoned warehouses, sewer tunnels and gas-station restrooms, with windows that offer screensaver-like views of a computer-generated Earth hovering in the background. Longtime d.p. Mather handles lensing duties in functional fashion, and the f/x avoid overkill.