It's getting about time to wrap up the year in movies, but before we get to best-of lists and awards it's time to salute a movie that is not going to appear on any best-of lists (even my own) and which will only be winning awards at the 2nd annual Fucko Awards here on these hallowed pages, for the teeming dozens of you who still put up with the Tourette's-on-coke cursing, loopy structure, and pleonastically redundant syntax. That movie, ladies and gentlemen, is Space Jail.
“Space Jail” is the far more widely-used alternate title to the sci-fi action picture Lockout, produced by scenarist and co-writer Luc Besson's Europacorp, that bulwark against good taste, that hallowed house of B cinema, that kingmaker of such now-revered titans of ownage as Jason Statham and Liam Neeson (who, yes, was already Liam Neeson, but until the now legendary “particular set of skills” speech in Taken had not yet lay claim to this particular realm). The B movie, of which even the Europacorp cycle, glorious as they are, are pale shadows (and, to be brutally honest, if B movies still existed in their proper form, the Europacorp pictures would be less special), is an essential variety of cinema. Where the so-called “A” movie—ideally—caters to the intellect and—in a perfect world—has artistic aspirations, the B operates on the emotions, and visceral pleasures. A's can be emotionally satisfying, and B's can be smart and have artistic merit, but there's nothing like a good, “dumb” B. Lockout is a proud example thereof, and as such it has a very simple premise: the hero needs to rescue the princess, defeat the monsters who have her, and escape. That premise is thousands of years old. But the mark of a successful B movie (or the equivalent in other art forms) is the balance it strikes between the familiar and the novel. Which is why Lockout is a notable success: the “hero” is a chainsmoking, wisecracking government agent, tasked with rescuing the president's daughter from a maximum security facility, where she's being held by insane Scottish brothers and hundreds of other hardened convicts. Oh, yeah, and it's in fucking space. Hence, Space Jail.
I don't remember who the first other person I heard refer to Lockout as Space Jail was. The movie had already changed titles a couple times before I even read about it, and there were rumors the title was going to change again, so I started mentally referring to it as “that Guy Pearce space jail movie,” because as mnemonic placeholders go that's not bad, not to mention the notion of a movie where Guy Pearce went to fucking space to break into a space jail was awesome. I'm pretty sure I'd heard someone else call it that, because while waiting to get into the screening I tweeted, “Damn, everyone in New York is trying to get thrown in space jail. #SPACEJAIL” directly after which I heard someone behind me in line say, “Oh, no, I'm not here to see [whatever the other movie in the other screening room was], I'm here for Space Jail!” and that wasn't the first time. Anyway, that was early April. I think since then I've heard the movie called “Lockout” about three times, as opposed to too many joyous whoops of “Space Jail!” to possibly count.
Not being a solipsist, and not one to conflate my little Twitter critics/bloggers clique with the universe, I'm well aware that not everyone is as enamored of this picture as I. Admittedly, part of my ranting about it is that it's so much fun to say “Space Jail!” Another is, much like with oxygen deprivation, a few too many Golan-Globus/Cannon-less years fucked my brain up (I mean goddamn, the whole fucking 90s went by with no Cannon Films, and Europacorp didn't really hit its stride til the mid 00s; that's fifteen years wandering in the fucking desert looking for an oasis of new disreputable B movies). A lot of people I respect have said “I don't get it” with regards to the Space Jail cult, and a few (using “cult” as foreshadowing) have flat out said: “You people are crazy.” The case they make consists of the following, irrefutable, points:
1—The characters are, without exception, one-dimensional archetypes or cannon fodder
2—The plot is by-the-numbers B fare
3—The special effects really, really suck
4—The movie is utterly shameless about all of the above
The reason none of those points can be refuted is that they're exactly what make Space Jail so wonderful. It's even better on second viewing because, while the first time around you can be fairly certain Guy Pearce kills all the bad guys and somehow gets First Daughter Maggie Grace to fall for his rakish charms (Andreas at Pussy Goes Grr compared this bit of business to It Happened One Night, which is absolutely spot-on), the second time around you know he does. Knowing how it all shakes out also affords one the opportunity to marvel at the tightness of the story's construction and the blazing speed at which that story goes by. (And seriously, some of the flourishes—making the villains Scottish psychopaths, for one—seem like they were created while on speed.)
All perverse affinity for down-and-dirty genre fare aside, it takes truly inspired execution to keep material like this from, to borrow the last of Space Jail's multiple ticking clocks, falling out of orbit and crashing into the Eastern seaboard. The reason Space Jail actually works is because of Guy Pearce. His performance is a lead in a more practical way than simply being the guy in the most scenes with the most lines who kills the bad guy. Guy Pearce leads the audience through the story, acting as the lens through which we see the movie, even more than the direction or script.
The fact that Guy Pearce is in a movie like this raises questions on its own, as it does sort of feel like slumming for him. As it turns out, he totally is, but fabulously. His being a good enough actor to look at the script and go, “Ha! This shit is fucking silly....but hey, what's worth doing is worth doing right” leads him to engage fully with the silliness of the proceedings without ever acting like it's beneath him. When it's time to kick ass he kicks ass. When it's time to get serious, he gets serious. When it's time to stop acting like a 12-year-old to Maggie Grace, he stops. It's a performance perfectly calibrated with the movie's tone and perfectly serving the narrative. Just tip your cap to Guy Pearce in this.
A repeat viewing also yielded a very pleasant surprise: the first time around I'd been a little alarmed by the glassiness of Maggie Grace's eyes and walked away with the impression that she was high or something. You know what it was? Shitty lighting. Yeah, some grip was pointing a practical right at her contact lenses and it made her look smacked out on pills for the whole movie. Turns out she's actually great, lots of subtle emotional colors, and if it wasn't for that colossally fucking stupid Secret Service agent (an odd but fascinating recurrent bit of business; he needlessly endangers her in every single scene they share) she wouldn't even really have any hapless heroine business. Her smarts get Guy Pearce out of a number of tight spots, and in a pinch she even dispenses a bit of crisply executed ownage, machine-gunning a few baddies while Guy Pearce brute-forces a locked door (after she kills the guys, he's like “Jesus, I thought you were a Democrat,” which is really fucking funny).
With this positive energy at the top, we're afforded the pleasures of an extremely eccentric supporting cast. Although it would have been nice if they'd splurged and cast Željko Ivanek as the president (the poor man's Željko holds it down competently as the prez but Željko's Željko, feel me?) everybody else fucking rocks. Peter Stormare and Lennie James look like they're locked in heated battle to win a side bet about who can have the worse American accent (Lennie James manages to win because Stormare Costners up and doesn't even try, aside from a couple twangy vowels). And speaking of accents, how amazing is it that hundreds of dudes bust out of their cells and seize control of the prison, one grizzled fuck steps up and non-verbally says “Thur'll be nae fuckin anarchae shite, ken?” and everyone else goes, “Whoa shit he's Scottish, we better let him be in charge” without any kind of formal consensus and just zips behind him in total deference. His psycho younger brother with the mohawk is great too, and legitimately scary because he kills people even when it doesn't make sense to.
But the real kicker, another thing that didn't really register until the second time around, is that one of the biggest complaints everyone had about Space Jail actually can be rebutted, and completely. To wit: why the fuck did they put the jail in space, anyway, and don't say “because it's awesome” because that's not a real answer, so what the fuck, guy? The answer is given very quickly and not dwelt upon at all: a sinister corporation bankrolled the space jail to study the physiological effects of being in suspended animation in space for long periods of time as an R&D project with an eye toward deep space exploration. Yes, that's right. Space jail is in space because of Evil White Guys In Suits. Therein lies the grace note in this B movie symphony.
Ah, man, I fucking love Space Jail.