30 Years Ago: ‘Lock Up’ Takes Stallone’s ‘Rocky’ Formula to Jail
Sylvester Stallone was nearly untouchable in the late '70s and early '80s. His continuing role as Rocky Balboa earned bigger box office numbers with each installment of the franchise. Meanwhile, against-all-odds characters in F.I.S.T. and Victory continued to display the star's mass appeal. Even when he was eviscerated by the critics, as he was with Cobra or the Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive, the latter of which he wrote and directed, audiences still came out in droves.
However, things began to take a downturn as the decade wore on. Stallone co-starred with Dolly Parton in the failed musical-comedy Rhinestone (1984), and tried to do a schmaltzy drama as a long-haul trucker/arm wrestler in Over the Top (1987). Both films lost money at the box office. Recurring characters weren’t as reliable either, evident in the disappointing reception to Rambo III (1988), which brought in much less money than expected. By the time the prison drama Lock Up was released on Aug. 4, 1989, Stallone was in a full-on slump.
In an attempt to emulate late-70s prison break films like Midnight Express and Escape from Alcatraz, Lock Up delivered Stallone as Frank Leone, a car mechanic doing time in a minimum-security New Jersey prison. The protagonist is incarcerated after assaulting members of a gang who had previously attacked his grease monkey mentor. Since he's not a threat to society, Leone enjoys weekend furloughs to work in the garage, romance his girlfriend (Darlanne Fluegel) and play football with a bunch of neighborhood kids. With only a few months left in his sentence, and amiable relationships with the guards and fellow prisoners, he looks to have a cakewalk ahead.
That all changes one night when Leone is taken by force from his cell and transferred to the maximum-security Gateway Prison. The jail’s Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland) holds a vendetta against Leone due to a previous escape when the prisoner visited the aforementioned mentor on his deathbed. The warden is out for revenge, and he not only plans to make Leone’s remaining time a living hell, but to coerce our hero into slipping up and commiting an infraction severe enough keep him behind bars for the foreseeable future.
Drumgoole enlists one of the other inmates, Chink Weber (Sonny Landham), to goad Leone. Coincidentally, boxer Chuck Wepner, the New Jersey palooka whose near-distance bout with Muhammad Ali inspired Stallone to pen the original Rocky, was serving time at Rahway State Prison where Lock Up was filmed. He claims he was offered the part of a boxer named Chink Weber in Rocky II, but botched the opportunity when he showed up wasted at the audition. Stallone then repurposed the "Chink Weber" name for the Lock Up protagonist.
Things take a turn when Leone is stabbed in a prison yard melee, ending up in the infirmary. There a guard disguised as a wheelchair-bound inmate boasts about getting released in a couple of days. When the guard expresses a plan to rape Leone’s girlfriend, Stallone’s character is finally sent over the edge and on a mission to escape.
Aided and then betrayed by Dallas (a fantastic Tom Sizemore in his first starring role), Leone does a fake-out on the jail break, opting instead to ambush Drumgoole. The convict puts the warden in a long-outlawed electric chair and forces Drumgoole to confess his devious ways. The rape charade, the efforts to force Leone into an escape attempt, they were all orchestrated by Drumgoole in hopes of keeping the prisoner behind bars. The warden’s peers, watching the confession, now know the truth. The bow is knotted. Good guys win.
Scored by celebrated composer Bill Conti, Lock Up at times plays visually and sonically like a C-grade Rocky film. This is most notable during a scene where the inmates playfully refurbish a mint condition 1965 Ford Mustang in the prison garage – which is shot and edited just like a training montage from Stallone's famous boxing series.
In their harsh review of the film, the Washington Post noted that Lock Up comes off as "sort of prison fantasy, in which all the most popular boys in the cellblock have a high time together, smoking cigarettes, working on cars and spraying each other with paint guns."
Even the closing credits had a weird, pseudo-Rocky connection. The song “Ever Since the World Began” plays while the titles scroll. It was originally written and recorded by Survivor, the band behind Rocky III's smash hit, “Eye of the Tiger.” The Chicago outfit had released the track in 1982, but it stalled on the charts. Jimi Jamison, who became the band's vocalist in 1984, decided to record his own version of the track for the film.
It failed, and so did Lock Up, which earned just $22 million dollars at the box office.
Part of the film's paltry returns was attributed to its star's changing demographic. “34% of (the “Lock Up” audience) were 35 or older, that’s sad,” Ed Mintz, president of CinemaScore told the Los Angeles Times. “Stallone got old and so did his fans.”
Still, Stallone probably put it best when he told Entertainment Weekly that Lock Up was "not a film that was produced and performed with enough maturity to really make a significant impact on the audience or my career. And that’s the truth.”
Though the actor continued to tank with the ill-fated Rocky V, Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, he rebounded critically with Cop Land, Rocky Balboa and the current Creed series.
This fall, fans of B movie schlock are in for a treat as Lock Up is coming to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. The film will be released on Sept. 10.