Stuart Gordon’s futuristic prison film Fortress was originally developed as a starring vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, as Gordon has stated in interviews, it was Schwarzenegger who recommended that he direct the project after he met the director during the making of his debut film, Re-Animator, which the action hero’s body double had a part in as one of the film’s raging zombies. Eventually, Schwarzenegger moved on to other things and the film’s budget was cut down to a quarter, or less, of what it would have been had Schwarzenegger remained in the lead role. Still, Gordon stayed on board and saw it through.
Schwarzenegger was replaced in the role of John Brennick by another action star with a thick accent, Highlander’s Christopher Lambert.
The story is set in 2017, by which time the United States has been taken over by oppressive fascistic forces. One of the new rules in the country is that every woman is only allowed to have one child. Even if their child dies, as John and Karen Brennick’s child did, that still counts as her one child and they can’t try to have another.
So now that Karen (Loryn Locklin, looking remarkably like Barbara Crampton, the female lead in Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond) is pregnant for a second time, she and her husband are criminals.
The film begins with the couple attempting to cross the border into the more child-friendly Canada, with Karen wearing a flak jacket under her clothes in an attempt to get her developing fetus past the border patrol’s scanners. When a guard notices the jacket, John and Karen are identified as “breeders” and end up in prison.
Far out in the desert is the Fortress, an underground prison that stretches thirty-three stories below the surface and is owned by the Men-Tel Corporation. The place is run by Kurtwood Smith as Prison Director Poe, with the aid of female-voiced supercomputer Zed-10. Every inmate has a behavior control device called an Intestinator implanted in them upon their arrival at the prison. If they misbehave, their Intestinator can be activated to either cause them intense pain or to explode, blowing their stomach open and killing them, depending on the severity of their transgression. Even the dreams of the prisoners are monitored, and they can be intestinally punished for what’s going on in their subconscious.
The Fortress is where John is sentenced to serve thirty-one years of hard labor working to help expand the facility. Once locked up there, despite the hi-tech security, John is not a model prisoner and is constantly fighting back and plotting against his oppressors. Especially after he finds out Karen is imprisoned on one of the Fortress’s top levels.
While bonding with some fellow prisoners (Clifton “Gonzales Gonzales” Collins, Jr., Lincoln Kilpatrick, Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs), having antagonistic interactions with others (Tom Towles, Vernon Wells), and facing constant threats of intestination or mind wiping, John works at figuring out a way to get his wife and unborn child out of this place. As he does, he finds himself with a rival for her affections. Poe himself.
If John and Karen don’t get out of the Fortress before she gives birthto their child, it will be confiscated by Men-Tel to become an “enhanced” human like Poe, who doesn’t have to eat or sleep but is also unable to… “get intimate”.
A very Schwarzenegger-esque backstory was retained for the character of John Brennick. He used to be a military man, was in fact the most decorated soldier in the history of the Black Beret, but he quit in disgrace after losing an entire platoon under his command. Karen was in the Army herself, where she was a computer technician. The skills both of them learned in their military days will come in handy as they attempt to escape from the Fortress.
Will the Brennicks make history and get away from the Fortress, or will they die like everyone else who has tried?
There are much more popular prison escape movies out there, but for me Fortress is where it’s at when it comes to this particular type of film.
The special effects are great, as you would expect of a Stuart Gordon movie, the science fiction elements are intriguing and fun, and the cast is, for the most part, fantastic. Christopher Lamber’s John Brennick comes off as a rather bland everyman despite his history, but Kurtwood Smith makes for a wonderful villain, as anyone who has seen RoboCop knows, and genre icons Jeffrey Combs and Tom Towles are always a welcome presence on the screen.
With the future of a baby at stake in the storyline, it’s easy to invest in the characters and get behind their endeavors.
Fortress hits some of the familiar prison movie beats, but the technology of the world Gordon and screenwriters Troy Neighbors, Steven Feinberg, David Venable, and Terry Curtis Fox created makes this movie’s version of the situations interesting in their own unique way. There aren’t many other movies out there that feature prisoners fighting on a retracting bridge hundreds of feet above the ground with bombs in their stomachs.
The climactic escape attempt sequence is packed with action, and the prison’s security system doesn’t make it easy for the characters. Casualties are sustained, characters you like and care about are not safe.
Stuart Gordon has spent his film career working primarily in the horror genre, but he has branched out a few times, to dark dramas and sci-fi movies. With the likes of Robot Jox and Fortress, he has proven himself capable of handling large scale action on small budgets. It would have been interesting to see what he could do with more money at his disposal. Maybe if Arnold Schwarzenegger had stayed on Fortress… But I’m very happy with Fortress exactly the way it turned out.