Examining the prison movies of Sylvester Stallone

With Escape Plan out today, we look back at the strange prominence of prisons in Sylvester Stallone movies...

In his blockbuster movies, Tom Cruise likes to ride motorcycles and run with his fingers outstretched. Jean-Claude Van Damme likes to wear tight lycra and do the splits a lot. Arnold Schwarzenegger likes to make that sort of guttural “graargh” noise when he gets into fights.

Sylvester Stallone, on the other hand, has his own set of interests and habits. He likes to fire machine guns one-handed, scream while flying helicopters, and making a “hurgh!” noise when he does something athletic. Also, he has a tendency to star in films that involve prisons.

Now, admittedly, Stallone’s appeared in lots of films where there’s no sign of jail cells, sadistic prison wardens or metal trays with hideous food piled up on them. But then again, he has appeared in these…

First Blood (1982)/Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Stallone made his breakthrough as the writer and star of Rocky in 1976, yet the films he made outside that hit boxing franchise were less keenly received by audiences – the worryingly-titled F.I.S.T, Paradise Alley, Nighthawks and Escape To Victory all faltered where Rocky II and Rocky III triumphed. But with 1982’s First Blood, Stallone scored a sizeable hit, and gave the actor a new pop-culture hero to inhabit: the sad-eyed, lethal ex-Vietnam vet, John Rambo.

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It was in First Blood that Stallone first had a brush with jail. Having returned from Vietnam a lonely, traumatised vagrant, Rambo’s swiftly run out of town by petulant sheriff,  Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy. Stubbornly wandering back into town again, Rambo’s thrown in a jail cell and treated horribly by Teasle and his officers, triggering Rambo’s memories of wartime torture and causing him to go on a delusional rampage.

Stallone was canny enough to demand that the source novel’s ending be changed, making Rambo a more likeable character who survives to fight another day. This meant that Stallone could star in a sequel, which was even more popular than its predecessor.

What’s the jail like? Rambo’s serving time in a hard labour camp for his psychological meltdown in the first film, and while we don’t see what our hero’s jail cell’s like, the conditions in the quarry look grim. When Rambo’s mentor and war buddy Colonel Trautman goes to visit Rambo, he finds him breaking rocks with a pick-axe alongside dozens of other prisoners, whose topless torsos glisten in the sun as armed guards look on, impassive.

How does Sly get out? Through a chain link fence, Trautman makes Rambo an offer: he’ll be given a full pardon if he agrees to head to Vietnam on a reconnaissance mission. With a softly-spoken “yeah,” Rambo agrees, before uttering the immortal line, “Do we get to win this time?”

Of course you do, Rambo. You’re the kind of chap who can win a war with nothing more than a bow-and-arrow and a sweaty vest.

Over The Top (1987)

Directed by Menahem Glolan, one half of the producer duo who owned Cannon Films, Over The Top is an odd amalgam of custody battle drama and sinew-straining arm wrestling action picture. Stallone stars as Lincoln Hawk, a truck driver who wants to regain the affections of his estranged son, Mike (David Mendenhall) and also win an arm wrestling competition – top prize: $500,000 and a brand new truck.

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The film’s main complication comes from Robert Loggia’s Cutler, Hawk’s father in law who makes repeated attempts to keep Mike away from his grandson. In the face of this, Hawk does what any angry man with an five-tonne truck would do: he drives the truck into Cutler’s house. Utterly ruining Cutler’s landscaped garden and front door in the process, Hawk gets the chance to briefly grunt at his son before he’s unceremoniously carted off to jail.

What’s the jail like? The usual movie prison fare: grey walls, iron bars, suspiciously handsome wardens. The only thing in Hawk’s cell is a sign that says, “No loud talking,” which, considering Hawk barely says a thing throughout the film, is a bit of a waste of perfectly good rub-down lettering. The prison seems to be remarkably hot, too (Hawk’s shirt’s covered in sweat) and inmates are clearly allowed a daily quota of body oil – Hawk’s pumped-up arms positively glisten under the strip lighting.

How does Sly get out? No startling escape attempts here. Instead, a slick attorney in a grey suit arrives to make Hawk a deal: if he leaves the state and stops trying to gain access to his son, Cutler won’t charge Hawk for his ruined front garden. Reluctantly, Hawk takes the offer, but resolves to win the money and the brand new truck, and find a way to get his son back.

Random fact: Hawk has a special piece of exercise equipment in his truck that allows him to exercise his arms while he’s driving down lonely Nevada highways. And no, it isn’t a copy of Penthouse magazine.

Rambo III (1988)

This one’s  a little bit of a cheat, since it isn’t actually Stallone who’s jailed in Rambo III. This time, Colonel Trautman’s the one who’s captured and imprisoned by evil Russian invaders in Afghanistan, and given that Trautman got Rambo out of jail in First Blood Part II, it’s only fair that Rambo returns the favour. And besides, Rambo would miss not having Trautman around. Trautman’s the kind of guy who says things like, “Yesterday I saw you stick fighting in a warehouse in Bangkok.”

What’s the jail like? Hot, dark and very, very dusty – certainly no place for a decorated man of Trautman’s calibre, who is, according to  the evil, slick-haired Colonel Zaysen, “the first American captured in Afghanistan” – a move he’ll quickly come to regret. Until Rambo shows up, all guns blazing, poor old Trautman’s strung up by his wrists and treated like Stretch Armstrong. British sitcom Porridge this is not.

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How does he get out? You can probably guess. It involves guns and high explosives.

Lock Up (1989)

Stallone may have only paid a flying visit in Rambo III, but in Lock Up, he got to spend an entire movie in the slammer. Here, he plays a good-hearted New Jersey mechanic Frank Leone, who just wants to see out the final days of his sentence in a minimum security prison before he heads home to his loving girlfriend. But Leone hasn’t reckoned on the sadistic (and brilliantly named) Warden Drumgoole, played with lip-smacking fervour by Donald Sutherland. When Leone sneaks off to pay visit his terminally ill father in hospital, Drumgoole is enraged, and has Leone flung into Gateway – a hideous maximum security like something out of a poem by Dante.

What’s the jail like? As we said, it’s hideous. Someone’s clearly trying to save on the electricity bill, because it’s a dark, dank, sorry place. Drumgoole rules with a rod of iron, tormenting Sly with delousing chambers, solitary confinement and random stabbings and beatings courtesy of his personal army of heavies. Oh, and Drumgoole also has his own pet antique electric chair, which he strokes with suggestive fondness.

How does Sly get out? Sick to death of Drumgoole’s torment, Leone eventually finds a way to force the evil warden into blurting out just how corrupt and nasty he is. In a satisfyingly neat conclusion, Drumgoole is humiliated by his beloved pet electric chair. He probably should have bought a cat instead.

Tango & Cash (1989)

As we detailed fairly exhaustively last year, Tango & Cash is one of the weirdest films of the 80s. It looks and sounds like a Lethal Weapon sequel written by a screenwriter suffering from a serious bout of flu, in that all the staples of a buddy-cop action flick are in there, but everything seems slightly off-kilter.

Stallone departs from his usual, post-Bruce Springsteen put-upon everyman persona to play Lieutenant Ray Tango, a rich, bespectacled and sharp-suited millionaire who nevertheless chooses to fight crime because he likes “Good old American action.” Kurt Russell plays his opposite, the scruffy,  loud mullet wearer, Lieutenant Cash.

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Although the pair are predictably wary of one another at first, they’re forced to work together to bring down Jack Palance’s muttering, rodent-sniffing drug kingpin Yves Perret. Perret, frustrated at Tango and Cash’s repeated meddling in his otherwise roaring cocaine trade, has the pair of bickering super cops thrown in jail for a crime they (naturally) didn’t commit.

What’s the jail like?  It’s Hades with bars and white bricks. Tango and Cash’s arrival is greeted with a ticker-tape parade of  flaming toilet rolls streaking down from every cell, and worse, the pair of cops-turned-convicts realise that they’re surrounded by dozens of hoodlums they’ve arrested in the past. “I think you’re going to be very popular in here,” Tango breezily says to Cash, as an inmate rages, “You pig! It’s all over for you!” while blazing Andrex rains down in the distance.

Worse is yet to come. After sharing a lengthy, homoerotic shower (where they make jokes about one another’s genitals) Tango and Cash are bundled off to an equally steamy boiler room in the prison’s bowels. Here, they’re greeted by the shadowy form of Perret (“Just think of me as somebody who… doesn’t like you very much,” he hisses, awkwardly), Brion James with a suspect British accent, and an army of faceless inmates. After a brutal beating, Tango and Cash come to the logical conclusion that, while the showers are nice and everything, it’s probably about time they left.

How do they get out? This is the best bit. Although Tango and Cash are by no means impervious to the bludgeoning assaults from an army of convicts, they do appear to be shockproof. Having made their way to the roof of the prison at night, in the freezing cold rain, they decide to make their escape by sliding down a pair of crackling electrical cables. Remarkably, the pair manage to zip all the way over the prison wall to freedom without so much as a singed arm hair.

Random fact: There’s a scene where Stallone attacks Clint Howard with one of those slinky things that walk down stairs.

Demolition Man (1993)

“You’re gonna regret this for the rest of your life – both seconds of it” warns tough future cop John Spartan, played by Stallone in a beret. Having accidentally blown up a warehouse full of hostages in pursuit of evil criminal and arch-nemesis Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes, with hypnotic blonde hair), both Spartan and Phoenix are convicted and sent to CryoPrison, where they’re kept on ice for 36 years.

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What’s the jail like? It’s essentially a high-tech version of British supermarket Iceland, except with criminals suspended in giant fridges instead of bags of prawns. As movie prisons go, this one’s positively serene – there are no prison riots, and not a flaming bog roll in sight. The system only unravels when Simon Phoenix is thawed out for a parole hearing, escapes, and promptly goes on a gun-crazy rampage through the streets of a future Californian city, here called San Angeles.

How does Sly get out? In this alternate timeline, Stallone’s absence from society has left it effete and entirely unable to defend itself. The police bimble around the place talking like Ned Flanders (“Mellow greetings. What seems to be your boggle?”), and can only look on aghast as Simon Phoenix thunders in with his bad language and big biceps.

Reasoning that they have to “send a maniac to catch a maniac”, San Angeles’ law enforcers have Stallone’s hero thawed out to save the day. Like Godzilla and King Ghidorah, Spartan and Phoenix wage a miniature war in which good triumphs and several city blocks are destroyed.

Judge Dredd (1995)

Stallone had quite a lot of input during the production of the $90m 1995 adaptation of classic comic book Judge Dredd, which is perhaps why this version of the 2000 AD antihero is frequently seen without his trademark helmet in so many scenes (to the chagrin of the strip’s legion fans), and ends up in prison sometime around the half hour mark.

It’s strange, in fact, to watch the opening 15 minutes of Judge Dredd, and see how promisingly it reflects the stone-faced character of the comics and the Mega-City One he patrols. Thereafter, the elements that make Judge Dredd, well, Judge Dredd are gradually stripped away – first the helmet, and then, in a lengthy and melodramatic courtroom scene, the rest of his armour, until we’re left with standard-issue, hangdog Stallone standing glumly in a black vest.

What’s the jail like? We don’t get to see the penal colony Dredd’s supposed to be sent to. But we do see the high-tech, shiny holding cell he’s kept in before the trial, which looks like a bit like the Death Star, complete with masked armed guards and automatic doors that slide open with a whoosh. Then there’s the transporter that’s supposed to take Dredd to the penal colony, which is like a cross between the dropship out of Aliens and the plane from Con-Air.

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How does Sly get out? As if Dredd’s luck isn’t  tough enough already, the former Judge then finds himself seated next to Rob Schneider (here passing himself off as motor-mouthed hacker Herman Ferguson) – a chap he’d tried to avoid earlier by having him sent to prison for five years. Oh, the irony.  

Fortunately, Dredd’s saved from Schneider’s strangled in-flight ramblings when the transporter’s shot down and crashes somewhere in the middle of the Cursed Earth. Dredd is therefore spared a lengthy stretch in the slammer, but does end up spending the rest of the film with Schneider following him around. Such is life.

Escape Plan (2013)

Aside from a voice over performance as a lion stuck behind bars in the 2011 comedy Zookeeper, Stallone managed to keep his characters out of prison for the best part of 18 years. But then along comes Escape Plan, Sly’s jailhouse magnum opus that runs like an action-filled compendium of just about every other film on this list.

This time, Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a security expert who specialises in pretending to be a convict and exposing the flaws in a prison’s design by escaping. Breslin’s skills are put to the test when he’s hired to sample a new, high-tech security prison created by the CIA.

What’s the prison like? It’s a futuristic, dystopian nightmare. Convicts are kept in clear, perspex cages, while heavily-armed guards peer at them from behind evil-looking black masks. Overseeing everything is Jim Caviezel’s Willard Hobbes, who’s as petty and nasty as Donald Sutherland’s gleefully unpleasant warden in Lock Up. Hobbes takes particular delight in putting prisoners in solitary confinement, which in his hellish prison is a metal box with scalding hot lights in one corner and a webcam in the other. From the safety of the prison control room, Hobbes watches his captives squirm in the dreadful heat.

Yet while Breslin quickly finds himself on the wrong side of Hobbes, he also finds a firm friend in none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, here playing inmate Emil Rottmayer. Interestingly, Escape Plan marks Schwarzenegger’s first visit to a movie jail since 1987’s The Running Man. (Rottmayer even shares vaguely similar facial hair to the wrongly-convicted hero in that 80s action vehicle, Ben Richards.)

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How does Sly get out? That would be stumbling into spoiler territory. But it’s fair to say that Breslin and Rottmayer make for a formidable action pairing – even more formidable, perhaps, than the bickering, furtive romance of Tango and Cash.

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