“Everyone in here is innocent, you know that,” Morgan Freeman’s character says in The Shawshank Redemption. If a prison were populated with heroes from action movies, that statement would be absolutely true. Looking back over the last quarter century of genre flicks, it soon becomes apparent that if an action protagonist goes to prison, it’s usually for a crime he (or she) didn’t commit.
This is probably because most action stars don’t want to play convicted murderers (a trend bucked by Vin Diesel in Pitch Black), though as the list below proves, there’s at least one macho actor who seems to like films which involve being sent to jail in dubious circumstances. What follows isn’t an exhaustive list, but it at least illustrates that, when it comes to crime and punishment, action movie heroes often get a raw deal…
Ben Richards – The Running Man (1987)
The conviction: A helicopter pilot for a futuristic police state, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) refuses to fire on unarmed civilians rioting over lack of food. In retaliation, Richards is falsely accused of firing on the innocent people he sought to protect, and dubbed by the media as “The Butcher of Bakersfield”, is sentenced to work in a labour camp.
The time: Spending a relatively brief 18 months shifting girders in what looks like an abandoned warehouse, Richards soon finds himself a contestant on a brutal game show called The Running Man. A larger than life spectacle for the masses, it sees a team of assassins (called Stalkers) hunting down convicts (or Runners) on prime-time TV.
Did he deserve his freedom? Hell yes. Richards’ inherent goodness is demonstrated in the movie’s opening scene, with a line of dialogue served up with Schwarzenegger’s usual Shakespearean gravitas: “I said the crowd is unarmed! There are lots of women and children down there! All they want is food for God’s sake! To hell with you. I’m going back to base.”
Needless to say, Richards gains his (much deserved) freedom, kills pretty much everyone involved in The Running Man game show, and even helps a resistance movement bring down the American dictatorship. Not bad for a humble Austrian helicopter pilot.
Frank Leone – Lock Up (1989)
The conviction: Having beaten up a group of mobsters who attacked his foster father, nice guy Frank Leone (Sly Stallone) ends up in a prison run by the savagely cruel Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland).
The time: Sly plays Leone as the same glum, salt-of-the-earth working class hero we saw in his earlier films, so Lock Up is essentially John Rambo Goes To Prison (hence its inclusion here). So when Leone breaks out of jail just two weeks before he’s due for parole, you can be sure it’s for an honourable reason – he sneaks off to visit his father on his death bed.
Unfortunately, this enrages the brilliantly named Drumgoole, who subsequently makes a hobby out of putting Leone through as much pain and misery as he can dream up. This involves snatching Leone from his positively cosy minimum security prison and throwing him into the hellish environs of Gateway – a pitch-black penitentiary which only appears to have two light bulbs in the entire place. Donald Sutherland clearly relishes his role as the villain of the piece, fawning over antique electric chairs and threatening Leone with his moustache and icy verbosity.
Did he deserve his freedom? Oh yes. The writers of Lock Up are at such pains to impress Leone’s innocence on us, the suffering that he receives throughout the film is almost akin to Mel Gibson’s Passion Of The Christ. He’s almost gassed in a delousing chamber, shoved in solitary confinement, beaten and stabbed in the back by an inmate, and forced to watch as a car is brutally assaulted with baseball bats.
Eventually, though, Leone finally turns the tables, using Drumgoole’s prized antique electric chair against him in order to secure his freedom.
Ray Tango and Gabriel Cash – Tango And Cash (1989)
The conviction: Tango (Sylvester Stallone) and Cash (Kurt Russell) are an archetypal odd-couple cop duo framed for the murder of an FBI agent in Andrei Konchalovsky’s by-the-numbers yet fun action thriller.
The time: Tango and Cash are sent to jail at the behest of the evil Jack Palance – who ships his cocaine around in oil trucks and keeps a pair of pet mice in a briefcase for some reason – and soon find themselves locked in a maximum security prison populated by all the criminals the pair put away during the course of their career. (Weirdly, the plot bears a vague resemblance to Lock Up here, with Stallone and Russell starting out in a minimum security prison, before being shipped off to a much scarier clink full of sadistic maniacs.)
Did they deserve their freedom? Probably, though the number of times Stallone ended up in jail at this stage of his career (Lock Up, Tango And Cash and later Demolition Man) suggests that he might harbour some sort of weird prison fetish. Anyway, Tango and Cash stage a daring escape, commandeer a heavily-armed assault vehicle out of a science fiction film, defeat Palance and his army of mice, and bond over their mutual affection for Teri Hatcher. Oh, and Kurt Russell looks great in a cocktail dress. Midnight Express this is not.
John Mason – The Rock (1996)
The conviction: Former SAS soldier, former MI6 agent and former Alcatraz inmate John Mason (actually former Bond, Sean Connery) was thrown in jail after being caught in the act of stealing the private files of J Edgar Hoover.
The time: Having spent approximately 30 years in prison without trial – “He does not exist!” hisses John Spencer’s FBI boss – he’s dug out of his cell to prevent Ed Harris’s vengeful General Hummel from wiping out the population of San Francisco with a biological weapon. With Nic Cage’s buttoned-up FBI agent in tow, Mason heads back to Alcatraz to save the day.
Did he deserve his freedom? Indeed he did. While Mason really did steal some secret microfilm in the 60s, he was merely doing his job as a British Intelligence operative – and the US government’s decision to have him ‘disappear’ in its penal system was a terrible miscarriage of justice. Thank goodness things like this don’t happen in real life…
John and Karen Brennick: Fortress (1992)
The conviction: In the 21st century, US citizens are banned from having more than one baby. But determined to have a second child after the loss of their firstborn, John Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) are caught in the attempt to cross the border into infant-friendly Canada.
The time: The pair are sent to the Fortress, a high-tech jail where inmates are fitted with Intestinators – electronic devices which can cause everything from extreme stomach pain to gore-splattered doom. Worse still, there’s Kurtwood Smith to contend with – he plays Director Poe, the Fortress’s heartless overlord, who gets to utter the wonderful line, “Random Intestinations!”
Did he deserve his freedom? Of course. What kind of monster would put a couple in prison for attempting to have a baby? This sci-fi injustice means we’re rooting for John and Karen right from the beginning. Not even Kurtwood Smith, a runaway truck and an exploding barn can keep the couple from their chosen future of Pampers, interrupted sleep and endless repeats of In The Night Garden.
John Spartan – Demolition Man (1993)
The conviction: It’s Sylvester Stallone again, this time playing a beret-wearing LA super cop whose scorched-earth approach to policing leads to the destruction of an entire warehouse full of hostages. In fairness, Spartan was set up by his arch-nemesis, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes with blonde hair and dungarees). Appalled by the loss of life, LA’s courts sentence both Spartan and Phoenix to a lengthy stretch in CryoPrison.
The time: As prison sentences go, the one in Demolition Man is arguably the most uneventful in film history. Spartan spends 36 years trapped in a giant ice-cube and staring into the middle distance, which is thankfully related in a brief opening sequence. This gets us to the real meat of the movie: when he’s thawed out for his parole hearing, Phoenix escapes and goes on a rampage. And because everyone’s grown hopelessly effete by the 21st century, John Spartan’s thawed out to bring him down.
Did he deserve his freedom? Unusually, Demolition Man does take a moment to suggest that Spartan’s aggressive attitude to bringing down perps was partly to blame from the firey deaths of innocent people. But then again, this is soppy-eyed, hang-dog, loveable Sly Stallone we’re talking about, and it’s impossible to be angry with him for too long. It’s later revealed that Phoenix had already killed all the hostages before the warehouse blew up, which also lets Spartan off the hook. Oddly, the movie ends with the CryoPrison exploding, presumably killing all most of the convicts still frozen inside – something that’s never mentioned during the concluding celebrations.
Cameron Poe – Con Air (1997)
The conviction: In the process of defending the honour of his pregnant wife, former US Ranger Cameron Poe (a drawling Nicolas Cage) punches and kills a drunken man in a bar fight. At the advice of his lawyer, Poe pleads guilty, and ends up serving seven to ten years in a maximum-security prison.
The time: Avoiding prison riots and other assorted mischief by hiding in his cell, growing his hair and writing interminably long letters, Poe whiles away eight years in jail. But just when he thinks he’s about to be paroled on a good behaviour bond, the prison plane he’s riding home is hijacked by his more violent fellow convicts. What follows is an account of Poe’s attempts to get a stuffed bunny to his daughter’s birthday party, in spite of the efforts of John Malkovich’s evil Cyrus The Virus.
Did he deserve his freedom? Undoubtedly. Unless you count that awful hairdo, for which deserved a few dozen hours’ community service at least.
John Sands – Flight Of Fury (2007)
The conviction: When air force pilot John Sands (Steven Seagal) uses his martial arts skills to intervene in an armed robbery of a truck stop – resulting in the death of all the robbers and the proprietor – he’s sent to serve a sentence at a military detention centre. Sands’ employees, it seems, are worried about his insider knowledge, and use the incident as an excuse to imprison him and wipe his memory.
The time: While Sands sits in a chair and gloomily awaits his fate, the theft of a top-secret aircraft changes his fortunes. Sands is offered a shot at freedom if he can get the plane back – an opportunity Seagal accepts with his trademark gravelly whisper. What follows is a bargain basement retread of Michael Dudikoff’s Black Thunder, or Clint Eastwood’s Firefox (the 1982 movie, not the web browser), with Seagal heading deep into enemy territory (actually a quarry in Romania, by the looks of it) to retrieve the high-tech craft.
Did he deserve his freedom? Well, yes. The shop proprietor may have died in the crossfire, but Seagal was only trying to help. Still, if he hadn’t been sent to a penitentiary on trumped up charges, the military wouldn’t have had anyone to send to Afghanistan to prevent a dastardly terrorist plot. Silver linings and all that.
Marion Snow – Lockout (2012)
The conviction: Guy Pearce pumps up and smokes cigarettes as futuristic CIA operative Snow, who’s wrongfully convicted of murdering a fellow agent. He’s sentenced to imprisonment on MS One, an orbiting prison where convicts are kept in suspended animation (a bit like Demolition Man without the ice and Stallone nudity).
The time: Once again, the hero’s expertise – and fortunate timing – save him from years in a cell. Before Snow can be incarcerated, a group of prisoners escape from their pods, take over the MS One, and hold a visiting President’s daughter (Maggie Grace) hostage. Snow’s therefore sent to the prison to save her. Fun, knock-about action hi-jinx swiftly follow.
Did he deserve his freedom? You bet. Not only was his character innocent of all charges, but Pearce also makes for a surprisingly great, unreconstructed action hero, and many of the film’s best moments come from his gruff performance. Snow eventually earns his freedom, but a future of having to repeatedly save Maggie Grace from kidnappers undoubtedly beckons – which is really a cruel type of punishment in itself.
Ray Breslin – The Tomb (2013)
The conviction: Yes, 20 years after his last wrongful conviction, Sylvester Stallone is once again going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. In The Tomb – due out in September in the US – Sly plays structural engineer Ray Breslin, who somehow ends up in a maximum security prison he designed himself.
The time: The specifics of this particular imprisonment aren’t yet clear, so we’ll have to wait and see whether Stallone’s time in the can is as grim as it was in Lock Up. What we do know, though, is that Jim Caviezel and Vinnie Jones will play ruthless prison wardens, and – this is the exciting bit – that Sly’s cellmate will be none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. We’ve also learned that 50 Cent will play another inmate named hush, a cyber criminal who uses his hacking skills to help Sly and Arnie escape.
Will he deserve his freedom? Only time will tell. But by now, we think we have Sly fairly well figured out – he’s a secret lover of prisons, and The Tomb finally gives him the opportunity to team up with his fellow 80s action star for a long stretch in the slammer.
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