Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Completist Guide to the Fortress series (1993-1999)

Fortress (1993)
I guess your enjoyment of Fortress really hangs on whether you like Christopher Lambert or not. For me Lambert is an infectiously fun actor who elevates every project he's involved in but I can see how his thick French accent and hammy acting can turn some viewers off. For anyone in the latter camp, avoid this film because it's almost non-stop, wall-to-wall Lambert action. But for those who liked his performances in the Highlander series or the first Mortal Kombat flick definitely check this one out because it's easily in his top five career best.

Fortress sees Lambert and Loryn Locklin play John and Karen Brennick, a husband and wife living in a futuristic United States where strict laws state that you can only have one child. Having lost their first child, they attempt to cross the border into Mexico to have their second child. However, they are caught and both sent to a new underground super prison run by the Men-Tel Corporation and its sadistic warden Poe (Kurtwood Smith). Determined to get out Lambert starts to devise an escape plan with his fellow prisoners. Meanwhile Poe takes an unnatural interest in Karen and her unborn baby. Can Brennick escape and save his wife?
I guess the best way to describe the film is that it's a futuristic version of The Great Escape. Once inside the prison, there's a number of seemingly impossible obstacles that Lambert has to figure his way around. Roving cameras, explosive devices placed in prisoners' stomachs and even a device that scans your dreams. I think there's two terms for science fiction: hard sci-fi which is grounded in realism and escapist sci-fi. This is very much the second type. Much of the prison and they way it's set up is completely illogical but if you're looking for realism from a movie that has a company called the Men-Tel Corporation you're looking in the wrong place.

This is just really fun, unpretentious b-movie that never gives itself enough time to become dull. The film was directed by Stuart Gordon, who did the classic 80s horror films Re-Animator and From Beyond and well as the very underrated sci-fi films Robot Jox and Space Truckers. In this film he emulates Paul Verhoeven's wildly violent sci-fi flicks Robocop and Total Recall both in terms of their glossy looks and their graphic violence. There's also pleasingly large amount of model work and matte paintings that reminds you how great those techniques were. 
Fortress also contains some some hilariously dated 90s elements. For instance, at one point Lambert is tortured in a... gyrosphere. Man, there were so many movies in the early 90s that used gyrospheres as futuristic sci-fi devices just because people hadn't seen them before, like The Lawnmower Man. You'd never get away with that stuff now. There's also some very ineffectual gun-toting cyborgs that seem to get destroyed very easily. For those who have seen Space Truckers, they look kind of similar to the ones in that film.
Christopher Lambert is very good in the lead. Apparently the original plan for the film was to have a far larger budget and Schwarzenegger as John Brennick (which would make sense since the film's produced by John Davis who did the original Predator). Lambert may not be a massive musclebound hero but that almost makes it better as it makes the odds against him even bigger. Kurtwood Smith is also pretty great as Poe. He's nowhere near as good as Clarence Boddicker in Robocop but he still makes an effectively creepy bad guy. And there's some top notch support from Jeffrey Combs and Vernon Wells rounding out the cast.
One thing that people often complain about is that the ending is really abrupt. I think in quite a lot of versions on TV and DVD they severally truncate the ending. It should end with John, Karen and Gomez stealing the truck and driving over the border where they stop for a rest because Karen's about to give birth. Meanwhile the truck's remote piloting comes on and starts driving itself, running over Gomez and forcing John to blow it up with his bazooka/chain gun. Then he rushes back to Karen's who has given birth. It's pretty baffling as to why this keeps getting shown on TV with John and Karen driving over the Mexican border and cutting straight to credits.
Anyway, Fortress is a great science fiction film (just shy of being a classic). It's full of action to enjoy, gore to wince at and silly implausible bits to laugh at. You really can't go wrong.
Fortress 2: Re-Entry (1999)
Fortress 2 came out in 1999 around the same time as the fourth Highlander movie. I guess producers were starting to notice that Lambert was getting on in age and wanted to ring a few more sequels out of him before he got too old. I've got to say Fortress 2 is a pretty unnecessary sequel as sequels go. He escaped prison once, what are they going to do capture him again and throw him in a new prison. Well... yes, yes they are.
Fortress 2 picks up several years later with John Brennick living with his wife and kid in the wilderness, still on the run from the Men-Tel Corporation. When a group of freedom fighters ask John to help them take down the Corporation for good he agrees but he's quickly captured. He wakes up in another futuristic prison and learns he's to be sentenced to death very soon. Quickly, he decides to hatch another escape plan only to learn that the new prison isn't underground... it's in space! Surely, there's no way he'll escape again? That would be a massive PR disaster for the Men-Tel Corporation!
This is a definite step down from the original but that's to be expected from DTV sequel. As these kind of cash-ins go this close to being a good film but falls down on a few aspects. Firstly, there's some really horrible, cheap CGI for the shots outside of the space station that look like they're from a budget-release video game. Normally I'm okay if cheap CGI is integrated with live action but these shots are so jarring they really take you out of the film. Secondly, the violence levels are really toned down, there's no exploding stomachs here. Instead prisoners get headaches when they go out of bounds which isn't as gory or scary.
More or less the film repeats the same formula of the original with slight twists. For instance, instead of the dreaded gyrosphere the ultimate punishment on the space station consists of being locked in a glass bubble on the outside where you get badly sunburnt when the station is facing the sun and frost bitten when the station faces away. This was a pretty neat idea. One thing that kept the first film quite interesting is that it had a double plot of what was happening to John and what was happening to Karen. Here it's all about John, Karen gets left on earth, which gives Lambert a lot of heavy lifting to do that he clearly struggles with.
Lambert is still pretty enjoyable though but I've found the older he's gotten, the less enthusiastic and energetic he seems to be in his films. He seemed to reach his peak (disappointingly) somewhere around Highlander II: The Quickening. The supporting cast isn't as good this time around either. Willie Garson (who due to my fiancee's love of Sex and the City I can recognise as Stanford, Carrie's gay friend) is the only one who stands out as one of the Brennick's fellow oddball prisoners. And Pamela Grier turns up for a few minutes of screen time as a Men-Tel official but mostly looks as though she's reading off a cue card. I guess Jackie Brown didn't help her career after all.
I think part of the problem with the sequel was the fact that the original prison was this enormous underground labyrinth whereas the space station is just that, a space station. There's nothing particularly memorable about its setup. I'm a big fan of directors who can do cinematic geography well - ie. be able to show the viewer in clear detail how location is structured or where a car chase is taking place. It actually takes a lot of skill to do and I think Gordon pulled it off really well in the original but the sequel is just an endless parade of anonymous hallways and rooms.
Also the escape method is far less ingenious this around however there is one superb bit of silliness, that briefly brings to mind the original's tone, in which Lambert gets thrown out of an airlock into space without a suit and manages to hold his breath for a few seconds and get to another airlock and let himself back inside. If only the film had more crazy, physics-defying bits like this I might have enjoyed it more. The film was directed with a fair amount of anonymity by Geoff Murphy, who also did Under Siege 2 and Freejack. It's a little disappointing that the film isn't better considering I really like those two films.
All in all, Fortress 2 is a pretty inessential sequel but it's nice to see Lambert back in one of his classic roles. So if you're a fan of his acting you might as well give it a quick spin. The film doesn't do much wrong it's just it really doesn't wow either.


  1. Great write-ups! Haven't seen the Fortress series, but will have to check it out one of these days.

  2. Thanks Ty. Definitely check out the first one, it's a great R-rated actioner. Only go near the sequel though with drastically reduced expectations or you'll be severally disappointed.

  3. Fortress is a mini-classic of 90's sci-fi action. Part 2 for me, was a total washout. And it's interesting what you said about Jackie Brown not helping Grier's career. Looking back I guess Robert Forster got the Travolta-esque career boost from that one.

  4. Absolutely, Gordon needs to stop directing Mamet on stage and come back to doing some kick ass sci-fi-action flicks.

    Oh yeah, after Fortress 2 Grier did Ghosts of Mars and Pluto Nash. She's like a one woman science-fiction film jinx.

  5. Fortress was such a pleasant surprise and shows that even though Gordon does churn out a "lot" of unremarkable films, he does surprise from time to time. Pity this isn't available in widescreen anywhere. Or at least that I can find. I never gave the sequel a shot either. Didn't look very good. Great review man!

  6. Yeah, what makes Fortress great is that Gordon brings all his gory horror tricks from Re-Animator and puts them in a sci-fi movie.

  7. I liked Fortress but have never seen the second one. I like Christopher Lambert and love the supporting cast of Kurtwood Smith, Jeffrey Combs, and Vernon Wells. According to director Stuart Gordon it was originally supposed to star Arnold Schwarzenegger and have a much bigger budget. While I like the film we got, I would've liked to have seen that version.

  8. Yeah, Arnie made a few films that have a similar feeling - Total Recall and The Running Man. I like that Lambert got another decent sci-fi leading role after the terrible Highlander 2.