|VHS cover scan courtesy of retro-daze.org
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
I can't tell you why, because I don't know, but for one reason or another, this 90's classic popped into my head and I instinctly had a strong urge to revisit it. I think it may be because I've been seeing Christopher Lambert's name repeatedly since I've been revisiting the entire Highlander filmography in order. I guess that could be why. So when I recently came upon it at my local blockbuster (yes, we still have one), I snagged it for a whole $1.50 for 5 nights. All I really remember about this was that it was directed by Stuart Gordon and was mostly set in a high tech prison in the future.
In the future, John (Christopher Lambert) is sent to a super max high tech prison after getting arrested while trying to smuggle his pregnant wife across a checkpoint. Women are only allowed 1 child and being pregnant with their second child violates their quality control. While in the prison John soon plans his escape and is hell-bent on rescuing his wife who is being held prisoner by the prison's vicious warden Poe (Kurtwood Smith).
I have to admit, Fortress was much better than I was expecting it to be, and way more entertaining than it's reputation leads you to believe. In fact, I'm shocked this doesn't get more love in the cult film circuit. I'd probably put this right up there with say Class of 1999. Just a fun action/sci-fi futuristic hybrid on the low-budget side that utilizes it's budget extremely well. But outside of that, I have to give most of the props to Stuart Gordon. This guy has been an increasingly frustrating director for me. For me, his peak was early in his career, ending right up to when he directed this badass flick. Ever since this his style has become lazy and uninspired. It's like he's totally given up on offering anything interesting on a "visual" level. Most of what I've seen from him since 1992 has been a mess.; lazy handheld camerawork with almost no production value. It's hard to imagine it's even the same guy responsible for such highly revered classics like Re-Animator, From Beyond and Robot Jox. But it is. It's the same guy who would go on to half-ass his way through films like Castle Freak, Dagon and King of the Ants. I honestly don't know how, but trust me, it's the same guy.
But hey, at least we have films like this, films that remind us that there was a time when Gordon gave a shit. So much of this film and it's production is on point, even down to the model work. It's so well done that you can hardly tell, which makes it even more awesome that they didn't try to just go with CGI instead. Even the cast was surprisingly kickass. For starters, you just can't get anymore "menacing" than Kurtwood Smith (Robocop) as the bad guy, unless you had Bruce Payne maybe? And then we have Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Tom Towles (NofLD, Henry), and Vernon Wells (The Road Warrior) just to name a few. It's a pretty great ensemble supporting cast if you ask me, each bringing some flavor to the table.
Even under the confines of being mostly set within a prison, the script does allow for more action and violence than you'd expect. In fact, I was always kind of thrown off guard by how fun and exciting it ended up being. And that also takes me back to how well Stuart Gordon shot this. I can't stress that enough. I mean, this thing looks better than most sci-fi crap that was being released theatrically. And I know that this was in fact released theatrically because I saw it in theaters, but maybe because it didn't have a large marketing campaign it just didn't do well. After revisiting it, I'm shocked frankly. It's a fun, spirited, and well-executed sci-fi action tale that doesn't drag or miss a beat. So much of this works.
There seems to be a small time-frame when writer/director Stuart Gordon began to sway more and more into the sci-fi/action genre, clearly evident with films like this, Robot Jox and Space Truckers. I would have loved to see him continue on this path rather than seeing the droll he's churned out since. Personally, I feel Fortress was his last great film.
Fortress is no masterpiece, but it's one helluva lot of fun, and made exceptionally well. Above all, it's a lot better than you expect it to be, and really, what more could you ask for? I guess for me, not really knowing what to expect and having zero expectations helped, which made the realization that this was indeed a very killer flick all the more entertaining. I would definitely put this in Gordon's Top 5 films, and with that in mind, I'd love to see this get a new release, in widescreen. I know it's gotten a blu ray release, which is shockingly pricey. But I've read that the transfer is nothing to get excited about, though it does come in widescreen, so it has that going for it.