MAY 4, 2013
When I was a kid and Fortress came out for rental, I thought for sure it was a direct to video movie - it certainly never came to my theater, and therefore it had to be a non-theatrical release, right? Stupid young BC. So it's kind of ironic that it's actually the biggest theatrical success Stuart Gordon ever found here in the US; its nearly 7 million take is actually more than all of his other films combined here, which is so depressing to me. He's been one of the most consistent and interesting filmmakers of that "Masters" club, but his unusual ideas and independent roots will probably forever keep him from the mainstream success his peers enjoyed.
Indeed, Fortress is probably his most accessible film (and no, it's not really horror in the slightest, but with the amount of gore, the minor killer robot angle, and Gordon himself, I figure it's OK to review here - better than nothing, right?), which isn't much of a surprise when you consider that it was originally meant to star Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. Apparently, his longtime stunt double was the big zombie dude in Re-Animator, and showed the film to Arnold, who loved it. And because he was the kind of star who could choose a director, he recommended Gordon, and convinced the producers to keep him on after he left the project. Obviously most of the budget went with him, as Christopher Lambert wasn't exactly the huge star Arnold was (though bless Hollywood for trying - he had a pretty lengthy run as a theatrical star even though I don't think any of the movies he made after Greystoke ever made more than 15 million), but Gordon knew how to put a lot on the screen, making him kind of the perfect guy for the job in this situation.
Gordon gives it some of his usual touch - namely the casting of Jeffrey Combs as one of the "hero" prisoners and Caroline Purdy-Gordon as the voice of the supercomputer - but otherwise it's a pretty traditional action/sci-fi flick that were a dime a dozen during that period. It's 2017, and overpopulation has resulted in a nationwide law that forbids folks from having a second child, and Lambert and his wife are sent to prison when it's discovered that they are indeed pregnant again. They skip over the nitty gritty of the situation - their first child was a miscarriage, so if this is just about overpopulation why can't they have another? - but it's better than the usual "he was framed/acting in self defense" sort of thing that plagues 99% of the heroes in prison movies. We don't get to learn too much about the (four!) guys he shares a cell with; Combs was a bank robber but otherwise I don't think we hear why they were sent there, which I guess makes it OK when most of them die in the process of escaping.
The escape of course is just the third act, with the first hour setting up the "in the future" situation and the plight of Lambert's wife, who is in the same prison and also the object of desire for the sadistic warden, played by the great Kurtwood Smith. Obviously it's hard not to think of Robocop with him around, as both films have excessive gore not common in action films as well as a satirical edge (not nearly as prominent here as in Robocop, however), but oh well - he's still a lot of fun here, and good enough an actor to make gibberish dialogue like "Accelerate strike drone reaction time!" sound awesome. Plus it gets pretty weird at times; he's fond of watching prisoners' sex-driven dreams (Zed the supercomputer can broadcast them to his monitor, somehow), and he tortures Lambert by putting him in one of those gyroscope things for three days. The future!
It's also got one of the grosser ideas in prison movie history - they are all equipped with "Intestinators", which are silver balls forced into their stomach. An all purpose behavior modifier and tracking device, Zed can target them and give anyone acting out (or minding their own business) severe intestinal pain, and if they go outside the designated areas they will explode and kill them instantly. During a fight with Vernon Wells, playing the standard giant prison rapist dude (who has his sights set on none other than Clifton Collins Jr!), Lambert obtains the intestinator completely intact after the guy is blown away by traditional weaponry, and thus enlists Combs' character to figure out how they work and how they can be removed. The resulting setpiece (which we only see in full once, sadly) is a great little sequence that requires nothing but some minor prosthetics (to show the metal ball jutting out of the chest when being pulled with a magnet) and the actors making pained faces (or dribbling out puke) - a lot more exciting than the rather standard "blast the robot guards with a giant machine gun" action that makes up most of the final reel.
Oddly enough, I watched the movie a few days after seeing Pitch Black at the New Beverly (I should have "Non Canon'd" that one, now that I think about it), and according to IMDb, this movie was an influence on the pretty awesome Butcher Bay prequel game, with a very similar prison design. It's been nearly a decade since I played that game, so I'll have to take their word for it (or finally play the Xbox port I bought 3-4 years ago), but I definitely enjoy the coincidence. And while I don't remember much, I know that I definitely do NOT need to revisit Fortress 2: Re-Entry, which took place on a space prison and replaced Gordon with Geoff Murphy, best known for Young Guns II and Under Siege 2 (sequel king!) - any space prison itch I have will be scratched with Lockout, thank you very much.
Echo Bridge brings Fortress to Blu-ray for the first time, which I know because they put "For the first time on Blu-ray!" in an ugly gold circle on the cover, which will annoy you even more when you watch the disc and realize that it's no better than a DVD transfer. I mean, it's a fine transfer on that level (and I've seen worse on some of their other discs), but it's hardly reference material, and it's not the complete cut of the film; all the gore is intact but there are a few minor character bits trimmed here and there. It's nothing important, but it's not like EB is going out of their way to deliver the ultimate releases of these movies, nor will they bother to double dip, so we'll have to wait until the rights change hands again to get a top notch, complete transfer of the film. Or bonus material - this is as barebones as a disc can get - no trailer, no subs, not even a choice between 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks, though I should note that it IS the first time the film has been offered in its proper aspect ratio here in the States, and at 5.99 you can't exactly accuse them of overpricing it. A "get what you pay for" affair to be sure, but the movie mostly held up in my eyes and is a solid entry in every category (Gordon's filmography, Christopher Lambert movies, prison flicks), so in that respect it's kind of a steal.
What say you?