Old-school action from the house of Besson


Luc Besson is turning out to be this hefty boardroom type who likes to kick back in his private office (no doubt equipped with a bar, high-tech treadmill, elliptical machine and shower) while getting a young, newbie filmmaker (in this case two of them) to sweat through the process of making an action movie.

Besson is the producer of “Lockout,” a sci-fi tale set against the backdrop of an outer-space maximum-security prison. Some of the visuals recall Besson’s sleeper hits “Leon: The Professional” and “The Fifth Element” — back in the day when he wrote and directed his own movies at a pretty prolific pace. But closer inspection reveals that “Lockout,” for all its assured visual attractiveness, is missing the sarcasm, wit and mischief that defined those two works. Sadly, “Lockout” weighs heavily on the soul in the manner of bad airport coffee: You think it’ll wake you up but the stuff bogs you down with its swampy residue.

Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, “Lockout” feels like a patched-together amalgam of late-20th-century action fare, most likely starring Bruce Willis as a wisecracking antihero slob who nevertheless can be relied upon to save the world (as he portrayed in “The Fifth Element”).

Predictabilty? Check. An overwhelming sense of deja vu? Double-check. For the lead, the two directors picked up Guy Pearce, whose dark crew cut and white tank top from which protrude the biggest biceps of his career recall Willis in a fond way. It’s all so cozily familiar you forget to be scared, even when “Lockout” is making its darnedest effort to splash gore and brute violence all over the screen. (It is mightily restricted in this by its lame PG-13 rating in the States.)

In the end, the movie almost feels like a security blanket for action junkies. In its worn but voluminous folds, nothing fatally bad can possibly happen, least of all to Pearce’s character Snow, who, in the tradition of Willis and chums, gets slapped around a lot before the inevitable payoff. Of course, the girl (there’s always a girl) first sneers at him, then yells at him, and finally winds up falling for him.

So it all unfolds on MS One, the orbital penitentiary where Earth’s nastiest criminals are frozen in steel pods to prevent riots or escapes. But as soon as the U.S. president’s daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) arrives on a goodwill mission (to make sure everyone’s being treated humanely … huh?), all hell suddenly breaks loose. Emilie is taken hostage by a pair of particularly loathsome criminals resurrected from their popsicle closets and already sorely lacking in hygiene. They could also do with some basic people skills, such as not decapitating someone they don’t like within two seconds of meeting them.

Needless to say, President Warnock (Peter Hudson) is worried sick and enlists “the one man” who can take on the hopeless mission of landing on MS One, quelling the prison riot and saving Emilie — all in the same day, preferably. Enter Snow, who has been accused of stealing state secrets and therefore conveniently expendable should he fail. Not likely.

The thing about Snow (just like many of Willis’ characters) is that he never lets up on the wisecracks, even in dire emergency situations, such as when a swarm of serial killers, child molesters and terrorists come after him, all frothing at the mouth like rabid zombies.

One would think this a good time to shut up and run in the opposite direction, but no: Nothing deters Snow from forging ahead, saving Emilie and restoring order in the prison, all the while spewing one-liners. Some of them are funny (“It was coupon night and I was trampolining your wife”); more often they’re throwaway gags. At least we know the president’s choice was right on the money: There could be no other guy this durable and obnoxious. And who has the first name of — are you ready for this? — Marion. Really, what were his parents thinking? No wonder he became so tough.

On the bright side, “Lockout” could herald a new era in prison movies, since Earth prisons (like Earth itself) are getting way too cramped, and the stories coming out of them are getting kind of old. The same skinheaded, tattooed convicts with bad teeth look kind of special in a zero-gravity environment. But in “Lockout,” that mileage takes you only so far.