Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, September 9, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (1992)

8. Fortress

Stuart Gordon got to direct “Fortress,” a film that might seem to be outside his wheelhouse, because of a very unexpected name. Arnold Schwarzenegger's stunt double played one of the zombies in “Re-Animator.” The double convinced Arnold to see the film and he loved it. Schwarzenegger wanted to work with Gordon. The two nearly made a horror film together called “Berserker.” Years after that, Arnold would bring Gordon the script to “Fortress,” with the intention of starring in it. Schwarzenegger ended up dropping out of “Fortress” before filming began but Gordon made the movie anyway. The movie made a tidy profit for Dimension Films but fans of the director tend to overlook it.

“Fortress” is set in the far-flung future year of 2017. America has become a fascist police state. It is illegal to have more than one child. John Brennick attempts to smuggle his wife out of the country but both are apprehended at the border. For his crime, Brennick is sentenced to the Fortress: A maximum security prison, set up miles underground, and guarded by a highly advanced artificial intelligence named Zed-10. Brennick soon discovers that his wife is also being kept inside the Fortress. And that the warden, Poe, is becoming romantically infatuated with her. John, teaming up with several other prisoners, begins to formulate an escape plan.

Every time I review a prison movie, I can't help but notice how beholden the genre is to cliches. “Fortress” thankfully leaves out the inevitable prison riot but hits every other expected note: The sadistic warden, the overzealous guards, the convoluted escape plan, the pretty boy inmate getting raped. “Fortress,” however, does put a fun, sci-fi spin on most of these cliches. Now the sadistic warden is a cyborg, struggling to balance his human needs with his robotic programming. The guards are automated sentries. A high-tech, underground prison necessitates a crazier escape plan.  “Fortress” ends up putting a fresh coat of paint on prison flick stereotypes.

It helps that the Fortress is a pretty cool setting. When Arnold left the project, the budget was slashed from 70 million to 12 million. This might have crippled a lesser director but Gordon knows how to get the most out of his money. The set design is excellent. The Fortress has a precise, cold look, composed primarily of slanting vertical lines, in stark silver colors. By setting the story in the future, screenwriter Troy Neighbors and Steven Feinberg allow for all sorts of inventive set pieces. Such as a fight aboard a suspended platform, which is quickly retreating into the wall. Or prison sets with laser beams instead of bars. It's pretty neat.

Taking Arnold's place was a much cheaper action star. Christopher Lambert, whispery voiced cult icon, essays the role of John Brennick.  Lambert does a few things really well. He believably makes Brennick seem like a normal guy trapped in an unusual situation, someone who is not born extraordinary but has to rise to the occasion. (This is probably the main reason Lambert was a better choice for the film than Arnold.) He also has decent chemistry with Lryn Locklin as Karen, his wife. However, we still don't get a very clear idea of who Brennick is. Lambert spends a chunk of the film as a mindless drone, limiting his chances to make the character memorable. So “Fortress” has a mildly compelling protagonist but one that could've been more fleshed-out.

Luckily, the movie's villain makes up for its somewhat lackluster hero. Kurtwood Smith plays Poe, the prison's director and warden. Poe's demeanor – analytical, cold, distant – seems inhuman at first. Later, we learn why: He was the result of the government experimenting on confiscated babies, a half-human cyborg. However, what makes Poe really captivated is the growing lust he feels for Karen Brennick. Instead of being totally allied with Zed-10, the heartless super-computer, Poe ends up in conflict with his programming. More than once, Zed questions his actions. He ends up locked out of his own control room at one point. This dynamic, pulled between his programming and his hormonal desires, makes for a compelling weird villain. Smith, naturally, adds a quirky energy, finalizing Poe's status as a memorably odd bad guy.

“Fortress” has a great supporting cast too. Gordon casts Jeffrey Combs in a different sort of role. Combs plays D-Day, the mechanical expert pivotal to the escape. Combs is likably nervous and sweaty in the part, a long-haired eccentric prone to peppering his language with “mans” and “dudes.” Gordon casts his wife in the movie too, of course, this time as the voice of the evil computer. Lincoln Kilpatrick is well cast as Abraham, the prisoner that seems like a lost cause at first but eventually comes around to help Brennick. Tim Towels is full of bluster as Stiggs, Brennick's initially rape-y but eventually helpful cell mate. Vernon Wells appears as another unhinged bad guy. He plays Maddox, a hyper-violent in-mate with numbers tattooed on his forehead. (Imagine: If Arnold had starred in the movie, we would've gotten a “Commando” rematch. How glorious that would've been!)

A shoot-em-up action movie is not Stuart Gordon's usual territory. Which might explain why “Fortress” features some weird digressions. Zed-10 can, somehow, look into the in-mates' dreams. So we're treated to some odd dream sequences. Poe spies on Brennick and other prisoner's erotic dreams, which are shown on a scrambled, oddly colored television screen. One of Brennick's dreams features him, as a child, trapped in a pit, reaching for what you assume to be his mother. If that wasn't surreal enough, the Fortress is also outfitted with a device that irons out the prisoners' mind. Lambert is strapped into one of those spinning giant gyroscopes, while the audience sees color-inverted shots of him wailing in agony. It's a weird moment, further helping distinguish “Fortress” from other sci-fi action flicks.

If the surreal touches weren't Gordon's work, the super-gory violence certainly was. When in-mates are admitted to the Fortress, they have a device injected into their stomach. When they misbehave, the devices cause intense intestinal pain. If they refuse to conform, they are then killed. Early on, we see one of the devices explode a man's stomach. That's far from the only intense violence in the film. One of the automated sentries blows a huge hall straight through a man. Near the end, we discover that the guards are actually barely human androids. When these things are shot, they burst apart, their blue blood flying everywhere. Honestly, it's the kind of thing you'd expect the director of “Re-Animator” to bring to an action film. And it's glorious. Gordon even sneaks in some “From Beyond”-style body horror, when a magnet is used to remove the intestinator devices.

Gordon's previous attempts at action scenes, like the sword-fighting in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” was underwhelming. He does slightly better here. A sequence devoted to Brennick and his friends crawling through a huge ventilation shaft is suitably tense. The fight scene between Brennick and Maddox, above the pit, is well executed. In the last act, Lambert steals the cyborg guard's machine gun arms. At this point, “Fortress” descends into underwhelming scenes of Lambert screaming and shooting at bad guys. These scenes are blandly directed, suggested they were either second-unit shots or that Gordon still hasn't gotten a grip on action direction.

“Fortress” rolls along at a likable pace, following our hero as he bests the bad guys and escapes the Fortress with his wife. The film then tags on a preposterous final action beat. Zed-10's computer consciousness is downloaded into the eighteen-wheeler like truck Brennick escaped within. So the last scene is essentially Christopher Lambert with a flame-thrower fighting Optimus Prime. That's an absurd image already but then “Fortress” throws in the added drama of Brennick's wife giving birth in a flaming barn, somehow making an improbable escape. It's sincerely goofy stuff and takes the film out on an overly campy note. The ending is so ludicrous, that it's actually cut out of some releases.

The soundtrack is also pretty good. Frederic Talgorn provides the score. The music never gets too heavy, matching the light-hearted execution. Talgorn writes sweeping themes for the heroes. The bad guys get musical pieces full of trembling bass and weight. The Fortress itself gets a mysterious, impressive musical introduction. Instead of going with dread, it fills the audience with an odd sense of awe. The music encourages you to cheer along with a movie that lives and dies based on much it's winning an audience over. It's a pretty majestic score, considering how silly the movie it's attached to is.

“Fortress” isn't perfect but it's an entertaining way to waste ninety minutes. The script puts a clever spin on tried-and-true material. There's some memorable performances, especially from Combs and Kurtwood Smith. The action is impressively grisly at times. It's goofy but in the fun way older action cinema can be. The film was successful enough to spawn a sequel, albeit one that went direct-to-video. The story is apparently similar to the first but set in space this time and co-starring Pam Grier. Without Gordon's involvement, I can't say I'm eager to check that one out. [Grade: B]

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