CULT CORNER: Fortress (1992)

Cal gets locked-up with Christopher Lambert in Stuart Gordon’s sci-fi thriller. 

Who made it?: Stuart Gordon (Director), Troy Neighbors, Steven Feinberg, David Venable, Terry Curtis Fox (Writers), John Davis, John Flock (Producers), Davis Entertainment/Village Roadshow Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Christopher Lambert, Kurtwood Smith, Loryn Locklin, Clifton Collins Jr., Lincoln Kilpatrick, Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towles, Vernon Wells.

Tagline: “A Prison of the Future. A High-Tech Hell. Built to Hold Anything… Except an Innocent Man.”

IMDb rating: 5.8/10.

Fortress is an epically manly classic from the golden age of cinematic machismo. A prison break action-thriller, it possesses all the right ingredients for an entertaining slice of escapism, with an imaginative vision of a dystopic future, a superb cast containing a few action genre luminaries, and an R-rating in place allowing for plenty of satisfying violence and salty language. Fortress started life as a generously-budgeted vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the Austrian Oak instead opted to star in Last Action Hero, provoking budget cuts. Nevertheless, the ensuing feature is more than adequate, and although it’s not exactly thought-provoking or deep, its a perfectly sufficient beer and pizza extravaganza.

In 2017, overpopulation has led to drastic population control measures. It is illegal for couples to have more than one child, and the harsh police state enforce this rule with an iron fist. John Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his pregnant wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) are on the run, with Karen carrying an illegal second child after the tragic loss of their first. Apprehended at the border, the pair are given cruel sentences at an inescapable maximum security prison known as the Fortress, which is run by the sinister MenTel Corporation. Highly advanced technology litters the prison, with a computer known as Zed-10 that can monitor dreams and peak into the thought processes of prisoners. It’s impossible for inmates to escape, too, as they are all implanted with a device in their intestines which gives them severe pain if they act up, and can easily kill them if needs be. Overseeing the prison is Poe (Kurtwood Smith), a megalomaniacal warden who immediately notices John. With John separated from Karen, he begins to formulate a plan to escape the appalling hellhole with assistance from his cellmates.

Director Stuart Gordon (late of Re-Animator) embraces the B-grade pedigree of the production, creating a trashy action-thriller with some fascinating ideas at its core. Dreaming is forbidden and even fantasising is grounds for pain, not to mention the heroes have to contend with some genetic engineering run amok. Granted, Fortress is a bit slow-going to start with, but once it settles into its groove, the movie really soars with scenes of fighting, gunplay and over-the-top gore, the likes of which we rarely see in the 21st Century. Even the scores of prison movie clichés do not hinder the experience much, though there are a lot of them, including standard-issue stock characters and some pretty clichéd moments. It comes with the territory.

Filmed entirely at Warner Brothers Studios in Australia, the production design remains solid all these years on, with interesting ideas relating to the picture’s vision of the future. Zed-10 is a particularly magnificent creation, and the situation with the characters seems so hopeless that you wonder if it’s even possible for them to break out. The titular Fortress indeed seems like pure hell, and it makes for a terrific stage for the inevitable escape which serves as the climax. The action-heavy final third is definitely worth all the build-up; it’s loud, fun, and above all violent, ticking all the requisite boxes for action fans. Fortunately, the acting is for the most part agreeable, with Highlander star Lambert doing an admirable job as the hero here. It’s Smith who steals the show, though, again demonstrating his terrific acting chops when it comes to playing villains. Vernon Wells (of Commando and Mad Max 2 fame) is also present here, and his throwdown with Lambert represents one of the best scenes in the picture.

Today, Fortress remains an exceedingly niche title with a limited cult following, which is a shame. At the time, it was actually a surprise hit, grossing a reported $40 million at the global box office, a decent haul for the early 90s considering its $12 million budget. Perhaps Fortress might’ve been more fulfilling if it had explored its themes and ideas with more depth, but the brevity of the enterprise is what makes it such a fun watch. It’s a fairly silly, old-school sci-fi action-thriller from a bygone era, and it absolutely deserves to be seen if you enjoy the likes of Total Recall and The Running Man.

Best Scene

Could always just watch the whole bloody film. Good old YouTube.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • A futuristic remake of the 1989 prison flick Lock Up starring Sylvester Stallone.
  • Due to the fact that star Christopher Lambert had worked on several large scale productions, he was hired by the film’s producers as a consultant and oversaw filming.
  • Richard E. Grant was considered for the role of Prison Director Poe, which ultimately went to Kurtwood Smith.
  • A television series based on this film was never considered: the Fortress series would continue on from this film and would follow John and Karen as they are pursued by the Men-Tel Corporation and they raise their baby son Danny.

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