We look back at the 1992 cult classic Fortress, starring Christopher Lambert.
THE STORY: In a dystopian, ultra-futuristic 2017 (!) the population is kept under control by a strict one child per couple rule. With abortion now illegal, parents who violate this rule are imprisoned for life, while their children become the property of the Men-Tel Corporation. Enter John (Christopher Lambert) and Karen (Loryn Locklin) Brennick, whose first child died and are now pregnant with their second. Caught at the border as they try to escape into Canada, the two are sent to an underground super-max prison run by the genetically altered Poe (Kurtwood Smith), who has designs on Karen, while John plots an escape.
THE PLAYERS: Starring: Christopher Lambert, Loryn Locklin, Kurtwood Smith, Clifton Collins, Jr., Vernon Wells, Lincoln Kilpatrick, and Jeffrey Combs. Directed by Stuart Gordon.
“…it was Arnold Schwarzenegger that got me the job and it was because of Re-Animator. We used Arnold’s body-double in Re-Animator. The first reanimated corpse is a guy named Peter Kent, Arnold’s double. He’s got those big muscles. He got Arnold to see Re-Animator and Arnold liked it so much that he had a screening of it in his home, inviting all of these people, including producer John Davis. John had the rights to Fortress and Arnold was going to do it. For some reason, I’m not sure why Arnold finally decided that he wasn’t going to do the movie and dropped out. They had a big budget, probably like 60 million, 70 million dollars, which was a huge budget in those days. Now it sounds small. [laughs] Anyway, he dropped out and the budget went down; they cut the budget to about 15 million dollars.”- Stuart Gordon – unsourced interview – IMDB
THE HISTORY: Back in the late-eighties/the early nineties, Christopher Lambert occupied an interesting place in the pantheon of action heroes. Theatrically, his movies never did particularly well in North America, with even the original HIGHLANDER only grossing $5.9 million domestically. Yet, he had a real following in the home video market thanks to those early films, in addition to legitimate stardom in Europe. Thus, you got movies like GUNMEN, and KNIGHT MOVES, which only got limited theatrical releases, but did well overseas and very well in video stores.
Along the way, some effort was made to elevate Lambert to an upper echelon of movie stars, with FORTRESS a notable example, getting a wide release from Dimension (then a subsidiary of Miramax), with it grossing about $6 million domestically. Thus, it didn’t make much of a dent in North America, but overseas, FORTRESS was a mammoth hit – one of Lambert’s biggest-ever – grossing a huge $48 million – truly almost unheard of for a movie that did so poorly in its home territory. Lambert’s career got a boost, with HIGHLANDER III: THE FINAL DIMENSION, THE HUNTED (written up as a Best Movie You Never Saw by Paul Shirey) and MORTAL KOMBAT all getting wide releases domestically (although only the last one performed particularly well).
WHY IT’S GREAT: I vividly remember seeing ads for FORTRESS in the newspaper when I was growing up. In Quebec, Christopher Lambert had a bigger following than in many other North American markets, due to being a star in his native France, with him often showing up on Quebec chat shows to promote his movies in french. What excited ten-year-old me at the time was the blurb on the ad that said “more powerful than Total Recall!” I loved TOTAL RECALL so much at the time that this immediately shot to the top of my must-see list. In the summer of ’93, when I was eleven, I used to bike up to my local video store and rent tapes, and I remember being excited once I saw that FORTRESS had finally hit my local store (Video Roma). I took it home and loved every second of it (although – in no way is it more powerful than TOTAL RECALL!), and after it showed up on The Movie Network (the Canadian HBO) I pretty much wore out my VHS recording of it.
When I saw that it had hit Amazon Prime a few weeks ago, I was cautiously optimistic about revisiting it, but I knew that given that it’s a twenty-six-year-old B-movie, it might not hold up super well. To my surprise, FORTRESS is still a good little “futuristic” adventure. Sure, it’s goofy, but it’s also fast-paced and fun. The reason it holds up so well is no doubt because it’s directed by RE-ANIMATOR’s Stuart Gordon, with him one of the more underrated genre directors of his era. He loads the movie with enough grand guignol gore and sly social commentary (you can’t have kids but abortion is illegal?) that you might be forgiven for thinking this is a lost Paul Verhoeven flick, and if it had been made on a bigger scale with a bigger star in the lead, it might have made his career.
Even still, Christopher Lambert is a likable lead, even though he’s arguably miscast as an American ex-soldier (why didn’t they just say he’s American by way of France?). Lambert always had a cool, everyman vibe and a vulnerable streak, which always made it a surprise when he’d eventually break out into some old-fashioned ultra-violence, something this movie has in spades.
“I remember, because you cannot forget this [laughs] the best review was – because the movie got really good reviews – but the best one was in the New York Times, which I was flabbergasted about, because I was saying “Wow the New York Times gave me like four stars for Fortress!?” [laughs] They did because they saw the vision of Stuart and they were right because apart from the fact that movie was a big hit worldwide, he had – and he fought for that vision against the producers, against… he said “No, no, no trust me, trust me, let me do my things” and as he wasn’t going over budget and stuff like that [they let him] and it paid in the end.” – Christopher Lambert – Den of Geek Interview
He’s supported by an ace cast of character actors. Loryn Locklin is good as his wife, but truth be told female roles back in this era where nothing really to write home about, so she’s stuck in a somewhat generic part. Yet, Kurtwood Smith is amazing as the head-warden baddie, Poe, with this a nice complement to his iconic turn in ROBOCOP (I’ve always found it funny that he’s most famous for his comic role as Red on “That 70’s Show”). Jeffrey Combs steals lots of scenes as Lambert’s long-haired mechanic cell-mate, while a very young Clifton Collins, Jr. (then billed as Clifton Gonzalez-Gonzalez) plays the guy he has to protect from Vernon Wells’s hulking jailhouse rapist.
PARTING SHOT: Fortress really is a solid blast of early nineties action movie nostalgia. Is it a “great” movie? Probably not – but it’s a really fun one and well worth checking out.