Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #695
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: September 3, 1993
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Prison Movie
Country of Origin: Australia, United States
Box Office: $48,000,000
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Stuart Gordon
Producers: John Davis, John Flock
Screenplay: Troy Neighbors, Steven Feinberg
Special Effects: Tad Pride
Visual Effects: Paul Gentry
Cinematography: David Eggby
Score: Frédéric Talgorn
Editing: Tim Wellburn
Studios: Davis Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures
Distributor: Dimension Films
Stars: Christopher Lambert, Kurtwood Smith, Loryn Locklin, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towles, Vernon Wells, Clifton Collins Jr., John Pierce, Warwick Capper
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Animal Alpha “Bend Over”
 Frédéric Talgorn “Fortress”
 Frédéric Talgorn “Kick Fight”
Have you ever been incarcerated? I have. Only the one time and only for the best part of an evening after being caught in possession of amphetamines but it is an experience I have no great desire to repeat any time soon. Being cooped up in a poky cell wasn’t all that terrible, but the thorough strip search that preceded it will forever lurk in my memory vaults.
The words “bend over and spread those sweet cheeks boy” still reverberate through my ears to this very day and I made an oath to myself right then to become a model citizen and never again invite the long arm of the law to steal away my dignity. I was fortunate enough to get away with a slap on the wrist that night, and as far as wake-up calls go, this brief stint in the clink was all the smelling sorts I required to tow the line forevermore.
There seems no more fitting a time to take an affectionate glance back at Stuart Gordon’s 1992 futuristic prison thriller, Fortress, as twenty-five-years later, its bleak dystopian vision is starting to ring a fair few bells. Outspoken President-Elect Donald Trump currently has grand plans to erect a wall across the Mexican border and I would imagine he got his idea from the MenTel Corporation as they have done the precise same thing with the divide between Canada and the United States.
That said, the purpose of said construct is not to keep out the immigrants, and instead, to control the ever-ballooning population. Thanks to MenTel’s strict one-child policy, second pregnancies are required to be terminated and this is wretched news for ex-military officer John Henry Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) having already lost their firstborn during childbirth.
While attempting to sneak across to Vancouver, the alarm is raised and the happy couple captured. John’s punishment for attempting to stymie the authorities is to be hauled off to a hi-tech maximum security prison to serve a 31-year custodial sentence. Think Alcatraz, then relocate to beneath the burning desert sands that can only be reached by a retractable bridge and you’re in the right zip code.
However, this is no ordinary state penitentiary we’re talking of here and the privately operated facility is overseen by tyrannical warden, Director Poe (Kurtwood Smith: Robocop – on tip-top terrorizer form), and an artificially intelligent software programme called Zed-10 that monitors the day-to-day activities of its inmates 24-7. Cells are massively overcrowded and prisoners secured by laser walls so escape is clearly not an option here.
It doesn’t stop there either, as thanks to pioneering technology, MenTel have the ability to read inmates’ dreams. If Poe sees something that he doesn’t approve of, then extreme discipline is swiftly called for in the form of “Intestinators”. These unpalatable devices are probes planted in the abdomens of the more unruly convicts and set to detonate the very moment they decide to step out of line, with decidedly messy results.
To make matters even worse, MenTel hold the monopoly on a range of enhanced cyborg combatants armed with flamethrowers and semiautomatics called Strike Clones and the entire institution is riddled with ultra-persuasive turrets just to ensure no shenanigans play out.
John soon learns that his wife is also being imprisoned and held on another level pending the birth of their unborn child. Once her waters break, said newborn will be confiscated by MenTel and he simply can’t allow that to happen on his shift. Thus he befriends a handful of his fellow battery humans and between them they concoct a plan. These include fidgety fledgling Gomez (Clifton Collins Jr: Rules of Attraction), tech-savvy demolition expert D-Day (Jeffrey Combs: Re-Animator), deeply disagreeable lifer Stiggs (Tom Towles: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), his strong-arm Maddox (Vernon Wells: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior) and Poe’s own personal man-slave Abraham (Lincoln Kilpatrick: The Omega Man). Game on!
This colorful and eclectic troop lend tremendous weight to Fortress and each brings something unique to the table, while Lambert leads the line reasonably well considering he has a tendency to leave this particular viewer cold. The casting of Gordon regular Combs is a masterstroke and he plays things wonderfully broadly as the affable geek of the piece, but essentially this ragtag assembly are little more than meat for the grinder. That said, the slender 91-minute runtime is packed to the gills with explosive set-pieces and never once threatens to surrender its vice-like grip on our senses. High science it most definitely isn’t but there’s a distinct Verhoeven feel to proceedings that serves it decidedly well.
Despite the fact that Fortress has an undeniable direct to video feel about it, it actually did some pretty decent numbers at the box-office and punched well beyond its weight. Gordon had already made a name for himself as a genre filmmaker with the likes of Re-Animator, From Beyond and The Pit and the Pendulum earning him no end of recognition with buffs but opted to deviate from the well-trodden path and proved there is far more to his arsenal than schlock and horror. Let’s be crystal about this, this is very much a Stuart Gordon production and the over-the-top gore should sate the appetites of all but the most ravenous grueheads. But regardless of being riddled with cliché and not nearly clever enough to distance itself from other B-grade fodder floating around at the time, it’s seldom anything less than arresting.
You know the score by now I’m sure. Fortress is the kind of midnight movie evocative of its era and the fact that the effects haven’t aged particularly well only serves to heighten its vintage charm. Throw the word dystopian into the mix and you may expect something a tad more intellectually dexterous but Gordon’s nimble-fingered approach keeps the emphasis squarely on a good time being had by all, and do you know what, it’s a fair cop as far as I’m concerned. Had the script included the words “bend over and spread those sweet cheeks boy”, then I’d be far less likely to revisit the MenTel detention centre as I’m not entirely sure that I’m up for another shanking. But where no-brainer fare such as this is concerned, I’m more than happy not to be rehabilitated.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: With inmates fitted up to the nines with “Intestinators”, you just know shit’s about to go live, and in true Gordon form, not to mention the implicit instruction of MenTel Corporation, Fortress abides. Enter all manner of intestinal breaching, thunderous turrets tearing through flesh, and more than sufficient blood spray to paint this concrete prison deep red. Clint may have escaped from Alcatraz, but something tells me that granting himself voluntary parole would have been a darn sight more troublesome in this shit pot.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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