Fortress is an excellent, though oft-overlooked movie from 1993 starring Christoper Lambert (better known as the Highlander), and directed by Stuart Gordon. The premise is engaging, the performances are far better than any that a movie of this type has a right to, the script is strong and keeps the action rolling while keeping you interested in the characters, and the visuals are solid across the board with a few standout images (most of which involve the inside of the Fortress itself.) Although it has its moments where credibility is stretched, and although the ending it downright goofy (and, yes, touching too), Fortress manages to rise above these distractions to be a very decent and quite entertaining action story. (Warning: spoilers will be in effect from here on in. Go see the movie now if you want to see it fresh. Its worth it.)
The setup is fairly interesting, and its premise is even more prescient now than it was in 1993: the world is severely overpopulated, and the government has instituted a strict limit of one child per couple. (This is a restriction that was actually in place in real-life China for years, and even today they have very large incentives for parents to keep their families small.) War hero John Brennick and his ex-subordinate soldier/current wife Karen have violated this rule–they have already had one child (who died very young), and Karen is pregnant again. As the movie opens they are trying to escape the country (?) using trickery but (naturally) are caught, and sent to the Fortress–an impenetrable underground maximum-security prison from which no one has ever, or will ever escape (at least not until roughly 85 minutes into the movie.) The rest of the film involves John learning the ways of the prison, building a team of inmates, and ultimately escaping with them and his wife before her baby is born. (That doesn’t quite do the quite interesting ins and outs of the plot justice, but you get the idea.)
What truly makes this movie work, and helps pull it head and shoulders above the rest of the budget dystopian sci-fi dreck out there are the performances. Christopher Lambert does a fantastic job as Brennick, showing just enough edge and toughness to make himself believable as an ex-Special Forces badass, but also does what so many action movies fail to have their heroes do: he works with people. This, in fact, is they key to his ultimate success. Brennick is no one-man-army, Rambo style hero (although he does have those moments and can more than hold his own.) His greatest talent is not ass kicking, but bringing non-like minded people together in a team, and getting them to work towards a common goal. As someone currently training to become a US Army officer, I greatly appreciated this aspect of the movie. Brennick, although capable of fighting, is not a fighter by trade: he is a leader. And it is this talent for leadership that wins him his freedom. In fact, with one notable exception (the duel between Brennick and Maddox on the retractable bridge), the movie is at its worst when Brennick is doing the fighting rather than the leading. (See: completely goofy and unnecessary action sequence at the end.)
The supporting cast does a uniformly fantastic job as well, from the always-entertaining Kurtwood Smith as the prison’s sadistic (of course) director to Lincoln Kilpatrick as the wizend old prison inmate, to Loryn Locklin as Karen. The three inmates who form the core of Brennick’s team are excellent as well (and are all taken from a theatre company that the director, Stuart Gordon, runs, which explains their universally excellent craftsmanship.) All the characters, from Brennick on down, are unique, and have a story and personality that you genuinely end up attached to by the end of the movie. When they start falling during the required climactic showdown, although the movie doesn’t stop to acknowledge their death, you will certainly notice.
The visual style of this movie is quite striking, although you won’t find anything exceptionally new or visionary here. Overlooking some very iffy green-screen shots during a few falling sequences, the long, panning shots that show off the enormous height of the prison blocks are absolutely wonderful, and quite realistic in that one could imagine actual prisons evolving into something approaching this style.
This movie actually had a squeal, called Fortress 2: Re-Entry. Its not quite as good as the original, mostly because it is the sequel, with the twist being that this time Brennick is caught, imprisoned in, and escapes from, a Fortress…in space! And no, that’s not just a cliched use of a meme, that’s actually what happens. That said, everything that was good about the first movie is still good about the second. The visuals are still great, the premise is still interesting, the movie is still fairly well written, and the performances are still good. I do miss the old cast of Brennick’s team, but, had they been present, this movie would have felt too recycled even for my taste. If you liked the first one, though, this is definitely worth your hour and a half. In fact, I’d recommend a back-to-back viewing if you enjoy this genre and think these might be up your alley. And if, like me, you love Christopher Lambert himself, this series makes an excellent way to kick off a Lambert movie night. (Followed, obviously, by the first and third Highlander movies. And stay tuned–there’s an article about those coming next week!)
Sorry for the bad quality of the trailer, but its the only one I could find: