In a quest to rejuvenate his stagnating career Edward Norton has taken on some bizarre roles in recent years, and few are stranger than convicted arsonist Gerald ‘Stone’ Creeson in Stone (Lionsgate). Sporting an improbable cornrow hairstyle, arms covered in dodgy prison tattoos, Norton definitely looks the part; but is Stone good enough to send him back to the major leagues?
Robert DeNiro stars as Jack Mabry, a jaded parole officer counting down the days until his retirement. Determined to clear his desk before he quits, Mabry finds himself crossing paths with the sociopathic Creeson, who was imprisoned for trying to cover up the murder of his grandparents with a house-fire. Eligible for early release, Creeson must convince the world-weary Mabry that he is a changed man, fully deserving of a shot at freedom. However, with little faith in his ability to convince Mabry of his good intentions, Creeson convinces his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to seduce the older man and persuade him to change his mind. The borderline-unhinged Lucetta is only too happy to oblige, but the scheme quickly spirals out of control.
Despite a top-drawer cast and an intriguing premise, Stone adds up to less than the sum of its parts, and director John (The Painted Veil) Curran’s slow-burning, dreamy style sucks the energy out of the minimalist narrative. Although it begins with Norton’s weirdest performance in years, and displays flashes of DeNiro’s old edginess, their interplay ultimately drags on too long, and in the end, it’s the provocative Jovovich who impresses the most. All three are convincing as bad people with dark desires, but the film never quite hits the heights it aspires to. Stone is too oblique for mass consumption, but it contains enough impressive scenes to make it worth the effort.
After teaming up in the unwatchably bad Number One Girl, Vinnie Jones and Tony Schiena have now been reunited for violent prison thriller Locked Down (Lionsgate). Schiena stars as Danny Bolan, a committed undercover cop who finds himself framed by his colleagues after a suspect dies during a raid. In Blackwater State Penitentiary Danny soon attracts the attentions of the criminal fraternity, eager to take a shot at a disgraced ex-cop. Inevitably, Danny has history with a number of inmates, but there is particularly bad blood between him and Anton Vargas (Vinnie Jones), an incarcerated crime-lord who runs a brutal cage-fighting tournament in the bowels of the prison. A shank in the gut quickly persuades Danny to participate in Vargas’s money-spinning blood-sport, but does he have the nerve to go the distance?
Despite an abundance of bruising, high-impact fight scenes, Schiena is so wooden that it’s a surprise his co-stars don’t end up with splinters every time they hit him. Indeed, when Vinnie Jones is the best actor in the film you know you’re in trouble. Although it aims to be the Shawshank Redemption of Mixed Martial Arts movies, Locked Down is a truly rudimentary piece of filmmaking with little to excite anyone outside of the (admittedly huge) MMA-loving demographic. The film’s above-average production values can’t disguise the amateurish script, and the abundance of branded leisure-wear on display shows where the producers’ real priorities lie. (If you want to check out a prison fight movie with brains as well as brawns, try 2008’s Felon instead?)
It’s hard to believe that Texan actor Rudy Youngblood hasn’t made a single film since starring as Jaguar Paw in Mel Gibson’s phenomenal Apocalypto. Four years on, a now shaven-headed Youngblood is back in front of the cameras in Beatdown (Chelsea Films). Youngblood stars as Brandon, a ferocious bare-knuckle fighter who is forced to flee his hometown when his dead brother’s gangster associates attempt to extort cash out of him. Shacked up with his embittered, wheelchair-bound father (Danny Trejo), Brandon is eager to find a new avenue of pleasure, and it isn’t long before he becomes embroiled in the vicious local fight scene.
Youngblood acquits himself well in the admittedly one-dimensional role of Brandon, and the casting of Trejo and Eric Balfour gives the film a mainstream veneer, but a career in Ultimate Fighting is no guarantee of acting ability and British UFC star Michael Bisping sticks out like a sore thumb with his comical Northern accent. Ultimately Beatdown falls apart due to stunt-coordinator-turned-director Mike Gunther’s bizarre preoccupation with epilepsy-inducing editing techniques, which detract from the film’s gritty aesthetic. Fans of Mixed Martial Arts will enjoy the bone-crunching array of fight scenes, but the slap-dash narrative and distracting editing ensure that Beatdown taps out. Ropey stuff.