“Fortress” is one of those films I’d have absolutely loved if I’d seen it when it first came out, when I was in my teens. It’s a big budget B movie, and Christopher Lambert was one good performance away from joining people like Arnie and JCVD at the top of that straight-to-video tree (at least for a while there).
Lambert and Loryn Locklin, who seems to have not acted on screen since the millennium, play a husband and wife trying to get across the border into Canada. It’s immediately obvious we’re in a dystopia, and this particular one appears to have something to do with babies – only one allowed per family. Er, wouldn’t this eventually kill off the human race? Ah well, turns out our heroes are expecting their second baby after the first one died, which is a big no-no, and they get captured and sent to the super-super-maximum security prison which gives the film its title.
Kurtwood Smith, post Robocop but pre- That 70s Show, plays the villain of the piece, Vernon Wells – the all time great movie bad guy from “Commando” – has a small part, and Lambert’s cellmates are people you’ll be going “Hey, it’s that guy!” at throughout. Luckily, the cellmates have a variety of critical skills and ethnicities, which allows them to formulate their escape plan (spoiler, I guess, although there are few prison movies where everyone just stays put). The security and methods of keeping them in line are all very futuristic (and quite clever, if I say so myself).
There are an awful lot of hefty coincidences in this film. Considering how enormous the prison is, Lambert only really meets the five people in his cell (one of them is the trustee who cleans the warden’s rooms, conveniently); and his wife, while being very pleasant looking, certainly isn’t the sort of woman who’d make the warden almost ruin his career for, moving her into his quarters so Lambert can easily rescue her later.
FIlms like this just don’t get made any more. B-movies with decent sets and casts like this are a thing of the past – digital filmmaking has meant all sets are CGI, and the drop in production costs means good actors are priced out of the market. Its closest relation of recent years is probably the Guy Pearce-starring “Lockout”, which cost over $20 million dollars to make (Fortress cost $8 million, and I don’t think inflation is running at over 100% for the intervening years). Films need to be either small enough to make money back off home video or very big, and the inbetween stuff like “Fortress” is sadly gone.
But still! We get to watch them whenever we like, and enjoy the products of the good old days. “Fortress” is terrible, make no mistake – Lambert was increasingly revealed by the early 90s as a man who had one acting style, and while it works in “Highlander” it doesn’t work here. Kurtwood Smith is too restrained – he needs to chew that scenery!, and of the rest of the cast, Jeffrey Combs probably acquits hmself the best, even if his death scene is one of the stupidest things I’ve seen in a while.
As corporations take over more and more of our lives, this film seems less and less outlandish, but there’s still plenty of good moments and director Stuart Gordon can make a decent film. So, if you’re in the mood for a blast from the past, you could do worse, but maybe find something a bit better or a bit cheesier to enjoy.