For years after Die Hard set the template for modern action movies—predominantly single location, pitting tough and often irreverent loose cannon against a pack of sneering Euro-terrorists or gangsters—the “Die Hard in a” subgenre thrived: on a plane (Air Force One), a boat (Under Siege), and a hockey rink (Sudden Death) before the related “Speed but with a” sub-subgenre took over, and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Skeet Ulrich drove an ice-cream truck into cinema history. Though a hat-tip is owed to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, the Die Hard-in-a-prison-floating-in-outer-space thriller Lockout is a pleasingly ridiculous throwback to that tradition, co-written by producer Luc Besson, who knows his way around a quality knockoff. Replace the sneering Euro-terrorists with prison insurrectionists, add the president’s daughter as the damsel-in-distress, and the script is just a few zingers away from writing itself.
Donning a T-shirt that reads “Warning: Offensive,” Guy Pearce stars as a government agent who, in action terms, plays by his own rules—or at least the rules of Harrison Ford as Han Solo, or Kurt Russell as John Wayne as Snake Plissken. A reluctant hero of the cynical, wisecracking kind, Pearce stands falsely accused of conspiracy to commit espionage, but a revolt at a Supermax prison in outer space gives him an opportunity to redeem himself. Because the outer-space-prison hook isn’t pulpy enough, the powers-that-be send Pearce on a mission to rescue the daughter-in-chief (Maggie Grace), an entitled yet feisty Princess Leia-type who the prisoners are holding for ransom.
Everything about Lockout is patently absurd, starting with a facility so costly and inefficient that it might as well have sharks in astronaut helmets patrolling the perimeter. Pearce’s directive is also far-fetched, because it requires him to break into the prison, dodge a gauntlet of rebel thugs and inmates off their meds, slip away with a high-value hostage, and break for the nearest pod out of there. But Besson and his writer-director team, James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, are comfortable with the “impossible” side of their mission impossible. They humbly suggest the audience keep its disbelief suspended like Neil Armstrong’s sack. More than any masculine heroics, Pearce’s primary job is maintaining the tone: smug, irreverent, and giddily punch-drunk.