Christopher Lambert must lie awake at night and wonder, in French, why other men became action stars and he didn’t. He’s as stone-faced as Steven Seagal and as hard to understand as Jean-Claude Van Damme, yet even after the “Highlander” series he never achieved the level of fame those oily bags of meat did. Where’s the justice?
It certainly wasn’t a lack of hustle that doomed him. Lambert made more than 20 films in the 1990s alone, almost three of which weren’t too bad. Among the others is the boneheaded futuristic sci-fi thriller called “Fortress” that is the topic of today’s dissertation.
“Fortress” takes place in The Future, when it is against the law to have more than one child. This is probably due to overcrowding, though it is possible that lawmakers of the future just don’t like children. The one-per-customer rule is so strictly enforced that you are not allowed to have a second child even if the first one dies! They are hardcore in The Future.
That’s what happened to Lambert’s character, John Brennick, and his wife, Karen (Loryn Locklin), who is now illegally pregnant with a replacement child. When the Brennicks are caught trying to flee the United States for the more lenient and baby-friendly Mexico, John urges Karen to run on ahead while he lets the police dogs attack him. Then Karen gets caught anyway, so John’s efforts were in vain, but he doesn’t know that yet. He goes to prison believing Karen and their unborn child are safe in Mexico, which isn’t something you’d normally believe.
The prison is a privately run institution called The Fortress, located underground in the middle of the desert and run by a corporation called Men-Tel. Things are very high-tech at The Fortress. Instead of bars, the cells have grids of laser beams that prevent inmates from escaping, at least until there’s a power outage. A sentient computer system named Zed monitors everything from an omniscient point of view and will announce — in the standard Lady Computer Voice used by all movies set in The Future — when an infraction has occurred. They even monitor the inmates’ dreams, and punish them when they dream of something forbidden (usually sex). Furthermore, all prisoners are fitted with an Intestinator®, a walnut-sized device that tracks their whereabouts and can be activated to cause searing gut pain if they get out of line. In extreme cases, the Intestinator® can be detonated, causing the prisoner to explode. The people at Taco Bell will tell you they have never had plans for a menu item called the Intestinator®, but they are lying.
Brennick doesn’t want any trouble with his new cell mates, but when one of them tries to rape a young fellow who arrived the same time as Brennick, well, that’s where Brennick draws the line. (As you know if you have ever watched a prison movie, the only thing the meanest inmates ever think about is raping one another.) The young victim, Gomez (Clifton Collins Jr.), is rescued, and a fracas ensues between him, Brennick, and the perpetrator, Maddox (Vernon Wells), a giant with “187” tattooed on his forehead. The prison guards don’t know who started the fight, though, because I guess the omniscient Zed wasn’t paying attention. Sure, they can record your dreams, but they can’t keep track of every single sexual assault. Brennick says that he started the fight. He takes the blame to protect Gomez, and because he likes being a martyr and there aren’t any police dogs handy for him to get bitten by.
So here’s where we meet the prison warden. His name is Poe, and he is played by the dad from “That ’70s Show,” so it’s hard to think of him as menacing. I know this was before “That ’70s Show” started, but I stand by my assessment. Realizing that the audience doesn’t know anything about Brennick’s past, Poe helpfully mentions that Brennick was “the most decorated captain in the history of the Black Berets” before he lost a whole platoon of men, in case Brennick had forgotten this. “What did I used to do before I got married and had kids?” Brennick sometimes thinks. “Oh — that’s right. I was a highly esteemed military leader whose men got killed. Thanks, dad from ‘That ’70s Show.'”
Anyway, Poe assures Brennick that it’s impossible to escape from The Fortress, and that Karen — still illegally pregnant — was captured and is being held in this very prison! But don’t even THINK about trying to find her and escape, Brennick, because this is not possible. And hey, remember how you used to be in the Army but then all your guys got slaughtered? What was up with that?
Back among his fellow inmates, Brennick starts scheming. One of the guys in his cell, Abraham (Lincoln Kilpatrick), is a sort of errand boy for Poe, which makes him the only prisoner with regular access to Poe’s office. This is a very lucky coincidence indeed! Brennick persuades Abraham to do some reconnaissance work and help Brennick and Karen escape. In exchange for this, Abraham will probably be killed. Just sayin’.
Here is where things start to get very predictable. First, Poe brings Karen in to his office and says he’ll kill Brennick if she doesn’t agree to be his girlfriend. (YAWN.) Then, Karen agrees and is relieved to discover that there will be no sex involved, as Poe is not a regular human, but is instead a enhanced specimen that requires no food or water and doesn’t have normal body functions. (OF COURSE.) So not only won’t she have to sleep with him, she won’t have to put up with his farts, either. It is also revealed that when Karen has her illegal baby, the Men-Tel corporation will confiscate it and turn it into one of these enhanced specimens, like Poe. Perhaps Karen’s baby will also grow up to extort affection from people over whom he has power. A mother can dream, can’t she?
Then they do a “mind wipe” on Brennick, which turns him into a drooling idiot with no consciousness, but then he snaps out of it after a few months and is back to normal, which in his case just means less drooling. He and his cell mates are all pals now, so they figure out a way to remove the Intestinators® and stage a prison break, even though breaking out is impossible, et cetera. The film ends with a husband and wife and their newborn son fleeing the country due to a decree from the government, so I think that makes this a Christmas movie. Happy holidays!