Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond) spent most of the early 90s being the best director churning out straight-to-video genre films for Full Moon Video. While movies like Castle Freak or The Pit And The Pendulum won't be winning any awards, they were good low budget fare, and superior to the Puppet Master series and similar ilk (Dollman vs The Demonic Toys!) coming out of the company at the time. Gordon's highest profile gig at the time, however, was the science fiction prison film Fortress, starring the always charisma-less Christopher Lambert.
It's the far-off future of 2017, and population control has made it illegal for couples to have more than one child. John Brennick (Lambert) and his wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) get caught trying to cross the border, and are thrown into a futuristic prison run by the sadistic Poe (the always awesome Kurtwood Smith). Inside, Brennick is subjected to all the usual prison-movie troubles: assault, mind wiping, and the occasional anal rape attempts. Luckily he has help from fellow inmates Nino (Clifton Collins Jr.) and the super-geek hippy D-Day (the terrifically off-the-wall Jeffrey Combs), as well as Abraham (Lincoln Kilpatrick) whom Poe has used as a personal assistant for years. After Poe falls in love with Brennick's wife, Brennick makes an escape attempt while battling all sorts of futuristic weaponry (and a super neat flamethrower).
Fortress was likely the first Stuart Gordon film I recall seeing, and I remember well checking it out when it came out on video in the mid-90s when I was still a teenager. I remember being shocked by the outrageous gore, and some graphic nudity (both male and female) that was a bit shocking for the time. But I also recognized that it was something special compared to the cookie-cutter action films covering the shelves, and shared a lot more in common with the over-the-top actioners of the 80s like Commando or The Running Man.
Filmed in Australia, Gordon gets the most out of a low budget, using some impressive special effects to expand the scope of sets that might look cheap or flimsy in the hands of a less accomplished director. Unfortunately, he's let down by a script that is packed with interesting ideas, but is unable to present them logically or with much narrative flow. There are four writers credited with penning the screenplay, and the disjointed story reflects too many hands being involved.
Christopher Lambert makes a bland action lead, but we get decent supporting performances that keep the audience's interest. Kurtwood Smith is surprisingly restrained as Poe, though his character only hints at complexities and doesn't really attract sympathy. More fun is Jeffrey Combs doing his best burnt out Dennis Hopper impression, and the late Lincoln Kilpatrick doing his best Morgan Freeman impression.
As mentioned, the film was designed to be a hard-R, and it never holds back on violence. One memorable scene features an inmate's mid-section being completely blown away, leaving only a large hole that the camera pans down to look through. The squibs are appropriately juicy, and when cyborg-guards are introduced in the last quarter, we get some nice body explosions that are amusingly messy. The film also features "intestinators", which are small explosive devices which detonate when the inmates go beyond certain areas (shades of Battle Royale!), and which lead to a few memorably violent moments.
The Artisan DVD is a huge disappointment, featuring only a Pan and Scan fullscreen transfer of the film that hardly looks better than the VHS version I watched in the 90s. Furthermore, for a film that was quite financially successful on release, the DVD features nothing beyond chapter markers. Frankly, the film deserves better, and I hope we at least get a proper transfer at some point in the future. The Region-2 version of the film apparently features subtitles and an Anamorphic Widescreen version of the film.
Entertaining and violent science fiction action film with a weak script but some great over-the-top action scenes, Fortress was followed by a 1999 sequel that i've yet to see. Not a classic by any means, but incredibly fun and features strong direction from Stuart Gordon. Worth a watch for fans of schlock, but beware (or enjoy!) the surprising amount of gore.