The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.
Warden Holliday: Who needs fences? Who needs guards? We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.
The yen for exploding extremities probably started with Scanners, at least as an ’80s phenomenon. And on the incarceration theme, the same year’s Escape from New York found Snake Plissken required to rescue the president from Manhattan open prison before a couple of micro-explosives severed his carotid arteries. The tried-and-tested locked-up version debuts in The Running Man, though, where Arnie sports a – yep – explosive collar that triggers if he or his co-convicts exceed the perimeter.
Wedlock’s twist is that the triggering takes place if the inmate strays a hundred yards – really? Is that all? – from their paired partner (hence the title, unless you were in Canada where it was Deadlock). Subsequently, we’d get an intestinator (the following year’s Fortress), a different kind of intestinator (a xenomorph in a men’s prison – Alien³, also the following year), a particularly grim island (No Escape – but nice flora), and some heavy-duty magnetising boots in a clink on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean (Face/Off). More recently, there’s been Sly in a hi-tech joint (Escape Plan) and Guy Pearce on an orbital one (Lockout).
Warden Holliday: So far, Camp Holliday has been 100 percent successful. No one has ever escaped. Why? Because we’ve taken the responsibility off of us and placed it on your shoulders.
Wedlock shares some DNA with Face/Off and Escape Plan, in that the prison employs high-tech methods, but the world is otherwise pretty much familiar (one might argue its prison is rather progressive in some ways, since there’s a mixed population and inmates are permitted to “bump uglies” during magic “hour”, 7-10pm). We’re told the proceedings take place “sometime in the future”, but since Graffiti Bridge and Marked for Death – neither exactly first choices for retrospective seasons – are showing at a cinema, one would be forgiven for assuming it’s actually closer to a few months in the past. Nevertheless, The Sterling City Chronicle informs us the date is October 12 2009, supplying such nuggets as “Gold Prices Soar: New Standard to Combat Fed Insolvency”, “Easy Passage of Unified Bar Code as Third Language Expected in Senate” and, if I read it right, “200th Rolling Stones album released”. So it seems there was good, bad and downright terrifying, respectively, in this alt-world of thirteen years ago. Who knew?
That vagueness also suits what is clearly a low-budget affair; as noted, Wedlock debuted on HBO in the US (and rental in the UK); it’s something of a step down for Roger Corman graduate Lewis Teague, whose flirtation with the big leagues appeared to end abruptly following the failure (relative to cost) of the previous year’s Navy SEALs. He’d garnered early recognition for the sparky, John Sayles-scripted Alligator, and went on to a couple of variable Stephen King adaptations (Cujo, Cat’s Eye) before pre-empting the likes of Renny Harlin and Stephen Hopkins (on Joel Silver productions) with strictly second-grade work on the quick cash-in Romancing the Stone sequel The Jewel of the Nile; it was a hit, but the best thing about it was the title. Teague took another four years to follow it up, in the form of the unlikely Jay Leno (yes, you read that right) starrer Collision Course.
Frank: You’re not just a sadist. You’re a greedy sadist.
Teague has some good company for his drift from the big leagues, though, since Rutger Hauer was, at this point, become something of a video-store titan, when not cashing Guinness cheques. Accompanied by Salute to the Jugger co-star Joan Chen (relishing a particularly odious ex role) and humorously weasely Stephen Tobolowsky as Warden Holliday – warden of Camp Holliday – there are a few engaging quirks in the casting that offset Mimi Rogers and Jame Remar. The former, playing Rutger’s Wedlock partner (nobody is supposed to know who their partner is, in order to prevent escape attempts), lacks the light touch required for this kind of fare, while Remar is doing no more than necessary (it’s a rubbish role, to be fair). More noteworthy are Basil Wallace and Denis Forest as particularly unpleasant inmates/sub-wardens; when their demise comes, it’s thoroughly deserved. You can also see Glen Plummer (Speed) and Danny Trejo (getting his throat cut).
Frank: Last time I trusted a woman, I needed six hours of surgery.
Rutger’s Frank Warren is betrayed by squeeze Noelle (Chen) and pal Sam (Remar), following a diamond robbery in which they rather cutely dress as priests; however, despite being “never really smart”, he takes the secret of where he stashed the diamonds to prison with him. Once there, it becomes clear Warden Holliday and his “extraordinary new penal experiment” is in league with Noelle, looking to secure his own share of the loot. Thus Frank, who is resourceful but far from a bruiser – an “electronics expert not a murderer” – is subjected to punishments, penalties and mistreatment, including an extended stint in a sensory deprivation tank (during which Wallace’s Emerald shows up to piss on him).
The first part of Wedlock is engaging up-against-it incarceration material, then, but once Tracy (Rogers), who has been imprisoned for touting Scientology to wannabe movie stars, intervenes and she and Frank head off on the run, the proceedings take a turn for the pedestrian. Aside from Frank’s extraordinary taste in knitwear, that is.
Notably, the explosive collars display bar codes (various Mark-of-the-Beast bandwagoning can also be found in Alien³, and Fortress). There’s mention of the Colombian Wars (where Frank and Sam fought). Richard Gibbs’ score makes for an increasingly irritating accompaniment. As the futuristic prison sub-subgenre goes, Wedlock is far from in the first tier; it’s all gimmick and lacks the style to take up the slack. But Hauer is on good form, even as he begins his descent into rotundity and indiscriminate selection of roles.
First published by Now in Full Color on 21/05/22.