Early on in Lockout, a team of special forces know-it-alls are debating how to solve a very particular kind of hostage crisis, in which the President's daughter is trapped in a jail that's in the middle of a mutiny, and that jail happens to be in space. The men are debating all kinds of solutions, SWAT teams and bombs and all that, until one particularly smart one pauses and says "Or… we could send in… one man."
That line is one of many make-or-break moments in Lockout, when you can decide as an audience to laugh at its audacity and keep going, or to shut down entirely to this movie's macho, hoo-rah appeal. The charm here is a little thinner than some of the other brash action movies to come from producer Luc Besson's hivemind-- it's no Taken, despite the presence of Maggie Grace as the kidnap victim once again, and it's missing the blunt-force dynamism of District B13. But it also has a trump card in the form of Guy Pearce, who unleashes a growling, muscular id as disagreed government agent Snow sent in to rescue the FIrst Daughter because he's got nothing left to lose. In his best scenes he makes Lockout feel special and vibrant, but when he's gone, the movie can be a surprising slog for something so silly.
For starters, it's a shame to see a futuristic sci-fi world so boring, in which Grace's character Emilie holds up the day's news on an actual piece of electronic paper (have they gotten rid of iPads?), and an early chase scene in the subway reveals trains as grimy and dysfunctional as the ones we have now. Directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger are operating off a small budget, but a little more imagination could have stretched that money a lot further-- the sets and costumes and general vibe of Lockout feel like all the sci-fi of the past 20 years blended into an indistinct mud.
It's only the people wandering around those sets, working their way around the borderline incoherent dialogue, who give Lockout any spark. There's Pearce's gruff Snow, of course, equipped with round after round of one-liners and a disdain for Emilie that barely coalesces into the expected romance. There's Lennie James's Shaw, who chows down on nuts constantly and directs Snow on his prison-rescue mission with some one-liners of his own. And a lot of the prisoners themselves make an impression, with Joseph Gilgun going all bug-eyed psycho as Hydell and Vincent Regan leading the revolt with a terrifying presence as Alex. Every one of these characters can feel overwritten or frequently lost in the murk of the story, but each have their standout moments as well-- if you don't think too hard about how much more fun they could have been in a better movie, of course.
It's not one big flaw of Lockout that dooms it, but a bunch of small, slowly accumulating ones, from dialogue that leaps right over on-the-nose into complete nonsense to brazen plot holes, like a giant sign flashing "Nitrogen Warning" that nobody in the tiny room notices until it's too late. One of the central action scenes is almost identical to one in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, but executed far less thrillingly, and though the entire finale operates with a ticking clock in the background and crazy convicts after our heroes, there's no sense of urgency or drama. After starting with a funny, dynamic interrogation scene in which Snow has a retort for every punch, the air slowly drains out of Lockout-- a fun premise killed by a thousand cuts of slack direction and not a single original idea.
With a plot cribbed so closely from Escape From New York and such a frequent disregard for character motivation, logic or even the laws of gravity, Lockout is pure schlock in the usual Besson mode, but it never picks up enough steam to turn into something outrageous and great. Pearce's performance is both things, and if nothing else Lockout is a strong argument for him to take on more charismatic leading roles-- he comes so close to rescuing Lockout that who knows what he might do in an actual good movie. He's almost reason enough to catch it, but be prepared to be frustrated that the rest of the movie isn't nearly up to his level.