1980's Flashback Cinema

Lock Up (1989): #Watch1989

Lock Up original film art

Lock Up (1989)

Your body has to be here, but your mind can be anywhere.

As I watched my latest 1989 film, Lock Up, I began contemplating the future of the #Watch1989 enterprise. According to the original tenants of the program, my 1989 movie marathon would conclude on December 31st, 2019. At that time, however, I anticipated having felt some sense of closure. I’d have watched a few dozen movies from 1989, discovered some gems along the way and completed a handful of chapters (all of them?) in the manuscript about the Summer of 1989. Alas, reality has clubbed me upside the head as I’ve taken stock of my year of #Watch1989.

I’ve watched around 65 movies from that great year. But there’s so many left to watch. I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve discovered some gems, but I also still have a bunch on my “must-watch” list that just haven’t been handled. I still haven’t seen My Left Foot, for example, and that’s a problem. Don’t talk about the manuscript. I got a new freelance job a few months ago and I’ve been struggling to make time with my own writing. So I went ahead and devoted a sleepless evening hyped up on non-drowsy antihistamines to watch Sylvester Stallone’s Lock Up (1989) which had just arrived from Netflix DVD.

Maybe I don’t need to put an expiration date on this, after all…

Netflix DVD Lock Up
Netflix DVD, those fine distributors of physical media, came through with a copy of LOCK UP, delivered to my door.

A Sylvester Stallone movie from the 1980s that I hadn’t seen? I suspect foul play based on reputation. Indeed, I’d never bothered with Lock Up due to it’s less than stellar reputation. And by less than stellar, I mean steaming pile of prison-cell fungus. That said, I’m still surprised I’d somehow sidestepped the movie entirely considering I watched everything indiscriminately during the late 1980’s.

While Lock Up plays like a stripped down Escape Plan (2013) prequel, it has the distinct benefit of featuring Stallone without a shred of self-awareness and a nefarious prison warden played by Donald Sutherland. Both hit all the predictable, necessary, and occasionally delicious 1980’s cinema beats. The result is a film that adheres to an outdated model of filmmaking, the delusional B-movie that masquerades as top-flight entertainment. We love the 1980s and the 1980s loves us back with entertaining mid-budget refuse like this.

Sylvester Stallone Lock Up
Sylvester Stallone confronts the bully (Sonny Landham) trying to take his lunch money in Lock Up (1989).

Shackle Your Disbelief

If we are to go along with Lock Up‘s absurd premise, we have to accept a series of absurd events that take place even before the events of this film. Sylvester Stallone’s Frank retaliated against a bunch of goons that beat the owner of the body shop in which he worked. That he was then incarcerated for a very long time and eventually escaped said prison because the warden (Donald Sutherland) committed unspeakable acts against his inmates. Instead of being fired, the warden gets reassigned to a hellhole maximum security prison where his further misdeeds can go even more unnoticed. The warden also exists in a prison system that would then somehow permit the transfer of the prisoner (from a minimum security facility) back into his custody.

I understand that our penal system is a shit show, (I read the New York Times and am therefore m’f’ing informed), but even this stretches the limits of the imagination.

Donald Sutherland Lock Up
Donald Sutherland as Lock Up’s evil Warden Drumgoole.

Warden Drumgoole launches an initiative to break Frank and cause him to do something that would result in his life imprisonment at his maximum security hellhole. He employs inmates to bully, intimidate, bait and torture Frank. He throws him in solitary whenever possible. I won’t reveal the straw that finally breaks Frank’s back, but it’s absolutely despicable. The lengths to which Drumgoole will go, give the film its only sense of surprise. Let’s face it. We know Frank’s going to get out. We know that somehow Sylvester Stallone is going to mug and grunt his way to freedom. The twist comes during the final act when you think just maaaaaybeeeee the Warden’s finally snared the fly in his web — and yet Sly evades him yet again. How he manages to escape an unwinnable scenario might also require some more suspension of disbelief (if you haven’t already exhausted it).

And you might shed a tear at what they do to a newly refurbished classic mustang.

Sylvester Stallone
Frank (Sylvester Stallone) picked the wrong day to quit knocking heads.

Lock Up Verdict

The director, John Flynn, made a name for himself making gritty 1970’s neo-noir like The Outfit (1973) and Rolling Thunder (1977). After a slow period to begin the 80’s, he wound up directing Lock Up and Out for Justice, a far cry from the kind of freedom he had been afforded.

Despite the intermittently laughable melodrama that speckles the Lock Up landscape, the movie finds it limited range and delivers a watchable exercise in “giving the bad guy what’s coming to him.” Stallone suffers constant physical and emotional torture — some of it rather undigestible and viscerally unnerving.

The supporting cast gives more than the movie’s worth — the cast of familiars like Tom Sizemore, Frank McRae and John Amos carry some of sly’s Sly acting burden. Oddly, when Stallone faces off against Donald Sutherland, their give and take styles (constant overt vs. underperformed rage) fit together like puzzle piece that someone mashed into place. It doesn’t work, but it kinda does if you don’t look too close — much like the entire movie.

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys Sylvester Stallone vanity projects for all the wrong reasons, you’ll definitely have some fun with Lock Up.

Check out some past #Watch1989 write-ups: Sea of Love / Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure / The Experts

Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone strikes a statuesque pose in Lock Up (1989)

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. He hosts the Cinema Shame and #Bond_age_Pod podcasts. Follow his blog at and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because the availability of physical media is important. The popular streaming notion of “everything available all the time” is a myth. We are always our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

1980's Flashback Cinema

1989 Flashback: Sea of Love

Helen: I always like to think I live for love. What else is there? Food?

Sea of Love (1989)

At some point during my ongoing #Watch1989 marathon, I polled Twitter for some suggestions. I received many wonderful ideas  — one, however, stood out due to the presentation. I wish I’d taken better notes so I could give specific credit to those who stepped forward and whispered Sea of Love, like it was a dirty, dirty, oh so dirty little secret.

I’d always been conscious of Sea of Love without knowing much about it. Al Pacino. Ellen Barkin. I could also describe the poster. Pacino pointing his gun forward like he’d been startled by the sudden arrival of a wayward James Bond gun barrel. As he turns to seize his moment, he realizes he’d mistaken the gun barrel for the space between necks of almost smooching silhouettes. Then his gun jams, and he just makes “pew pew” sounds to salvage the moment. This is where I show you exactly how all of this plays out on a two-dimensional poster. Zoom in on the look on his face. I nailed it.

It wasn’t the actual recommendation that teased me. It was the guilt behind the recommendation. I’d seen that guilt before in the eyes of moviewatchers with whom I’ve discussed the secret pleasures of Jade (1995). I queued up Sea of Love on Netflix DVD and awaited sexy times in my mailbox starring Al Pacino and perhaps the most captivating and least appreciated actress of the era, Ellen Barkin.

sea of love netflix dvd

How Sea of Love slipped through the cracks

Released the week before Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, the two prowled the same adult-thriller audience. Both succeeded moderately, but neither left a lasting impression.

I rented Black Rain as soon as it hit video. Black Rain popped up as a rainy day movie at baseball camp. Someone gave me a Black Rain DVD. Naturally, I picked up the Blu-ray. I wasn’t Black Rain obsessed, but it was as if Black Rain was obsessed with me. Michael Douglas and his dead-eyed gaze watching from behind the bushes in my backyard. Meanwhile, Sea of Love just seemed like a lukewarm trifle, a jilted lover, the movie that lost out to the more aggressive suitor.

Based on trailers for the film, Sea of Love just looked like every other barely scandalous Hollywood thriller. For comparison’s sake, let’s watch the trailers for both Black Rain and Sea of Love. You tell me which one you’d rather watch just based on the trailer.

Sea of Love:

Black Rain:

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Some of you probably picked Sea of Love. Congratulations on your ability to see through ham-fisted September studio marketing.  Neon veins coursing through a dark and gritty Tokyo in the Black Rain trailer made me a believer. It might sound like I’m suddenly anti-Black Rain. I enjoy the movie for what it is, but those slightly guilty suggestions that brought Sea of Love to my attention understood something about the film — even if they didn’t articulate it in words.

sea of love

The Appeal of Mainstream Sexy Times

Based on a screenplay by novelist Richard Price (The Color of Money), Sea of Love marks Al Pacino’s first film in four years after the disasterfest that was Revolution (1985). Despite solid scripting, plotting, and entertaining performances from Pacino and vampy Ellen Barkin, fans are often hesitant to admit their affection, like the film belongs to some kind of cultish and unsavory underbelly of mainstream cinema.

Becker’s serial-killer thriller knowingly plays with Film Noir conventions and conscripts them into a thoroughly modern genre film that also touches on existential loneliness and mid-life crises. John Goodman co-stars as Pacino’s investigative partner and provides some welcome comic relief. It might feel like a guilty pleasure, but Sea of Love joins a storied tradition of steamy 1980s R-rated potboilers born out of the subtext and embers of Film Noir.

There’s a major difference, however, between Sea of Love and something like Body Heat. Body Heat, for all its deliciously sweaty double-crossing (and Ted Danson) wears its Noir convention as proudly as Noel Coward wore ascots. Price’s script dares to transplant and update the formula to foreground modern anxieties and uniquely late-20th-century ennui.

Al Pacino’s Frank Keller appears on screen already in the middle of an existential midlife crisis. The killer finds his/her prey through the singles ads in the paper. While the technology of finding love through a print publication dates the film, the mechanics behind the narrative device easily translate to online dating. Looking for love while simultaneously hunting a killer provides a powerful playground for emotional fragility and cocksure swagger from both leads. Al Pacino’s not the only scene hungry thespian in this movie (and I’m not referencing Sam Jackson’s boisterous 20-second appearance).

The Ellen Barkin Factor

Like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (and scores of other classic Noir), at once obsessed with cash money and Barbara Stanwyck’s legs, Frank’s blinded by his desire for connection, for this intervention into his ordinary New York life. Midway between greenhorn and retirement. Divorced. Lonely. Not only is his police detective fallible, but he’s often downright unlikable. He wallows, drinks, picks fights with Richard Jenkins, and makes late-night phone calls to his ex-wife seeking emotional affirmation.

In one of his last pre-Scent of a Woman roles, Pacino contains the eruptions that plague many of his later performances. He’s terrific, but like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Sea of Love hinges entirely on the guile of its female lead. The viewer must see what Frank sees in Ellen Barkin’s Helen — a potentially deadly femme fatale with the power to heal a mid-life crisis with a torrid affair. It’s not just that she’s sex in designer heels, she also has to be a grounded single mother and career woman. We have to expect her guilt and hope for her innocence.

ellen barkin sea of love

If you doubt the power of prime Ellen Barkin, pair Sea of Love with Mary Lambert’s unfairly maligned Siesta (1987) — only available on a region-free Italian release. While Kathleen Turner received higher profile roles in better movies, Ellen Barkin toiled on the fringe of superstardom. It’s unfortunate that many of Barkin’s films just didn’t deserve her.

Al Pacino gets the clammy, “Who Me?” spotlight on the poster, but Ellen Barkin sells this movie. Ellen Barkin is sex and fragility; she’s a dominatrix living with her mother and doing her best to exist in a cinematic world that doesn’t know how to put a label on her.

Sea of Love Verdict

Harold Becker made a few standout films in his career (Malice and The Black Marble, for example), so the “discovery” that Sea of Love proved to be a competent and knowing manipulation of the genre shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected.

The way Price’s script inserts elements of the romantic comedy into a drama about an apparent serial killer makes for a movie that constantly puts he viewer on uneasy territory… until it lets everyone off the hook in the final moments. I’ve read nothing about the production, but I’ve seen enough of these “movie things” to recognize the telltale signs of studio intervention. Between an atonal final scene to an easy-bake ending, Sea of Love does all the heavy lifting but lacks the conviction to follow through on the promise of something more daring, something that would have catapulted the film into genre royalty.

Don’t let any of that dissuade you. Despite last-minute whodunnit stumbles, the Sea of Love serves up a delicious dish. It’s sexy, but not scandalous. Tense with a side of nail-biting and naturally funny when it needs to break tension. I just wish it had dared to be great instead of aiming for a higher test-screening CinemaScore.

As one of the biggest surprises of my #Watch1989 series, I’ll point you in the direction of the other surprising pleasure for a wild double feature. It’s not a perfect pairing, but I wouldn’t mind indulging in fun the double of Sea of Love and Gleaming the Cube. Give it a chance. You’ll come around.

Sea of Love is available on a budget double-feature with Scent of a Woman and in single-disc edition.

SEA OF LOVE, from left: Ellen Barkin, Al Pacino, 1989, © Universal

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.


1980's Flashback Cinema

1989 Flashback: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

bill and ted's excellent adventure poster

Bill: So-cratz – “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing”.

Ted: That’s us, dude.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the cinema. It snuck into theaters and snuck out of theaters before I or any of my friends really knew what to make of it. I remember, vividly, however the Friday I rented the VHS. In Marcellus, Michigan, a town of only about 2000 residents, we were blessed with as many video rental locations as gas stations/convenience stores (2). Surprised to see one copy remaining on the first weekend of release, I grabbed it and rushed to the counter.

On the following Saturday afternoon, I convinced my parents to sit down and watch this movie about high-school dimwits who travel through time. At this moment in 1989, I can say with the utmost assurance that I’d worn out my father’s patience for movies featuring dimwits. I was, after all, a devout Police Academy (and its sequels) fan and watched Three Amigos! almost every week.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

My father boasts a laugh of a certain magnitude. It’s impossible to mistake pure enjoyment from snores of indifference. If he does not care for a movie he will just fall asleep or start reading a book and then probably fall asleep, totally immune to anything happening around him. He watched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure from start to finish. I don’t remember his exact words (he’s always prepared with an immediate post-movie assessment) but it felt like “Let’s watch it again right now.”

Why Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Resonates

To me, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure represents the best of the 1980’s modus operandi. An inherently absurd high-concept that falls apart upon any scrutiny — but the viewer’s too entertained by the movie’s pure joy of existence (and puerile historical gags and references) to bother with anything as tedious as how an entire high school career can depend on a single oral history report. Screenwriters built and entire decade on arbitrary goals.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

The film also — and this is perhaps the most important aspect of Bill and Ted’s success — celebrates positivity rather than sneering derisively at its characters. Consider the basic differences in approach between Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and something like the certain Bill & Ted descendant, Dude, Where’s My Car?

Despite the slacker wrapping, Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan are given agency that turn caricatures into fully-rendered, relatable humans. A movie in which two failures (in the near future) have already saved the world with the power of a transcendent guitar riff — but first have to pass an oral English exam by traveling back in time to collect figures of historical interest.

bill and ted's excellent adventure
Bernie Casey had a long and interesting acting career, but he’ll remain best known as Bill and Ted’s history teacher.

It’s like borrowing the 1927 Yankees to coach your kid’s T-ball game — if upon that T-Ball game the fate of the world rested. If you spend too much time dissecting the time travel mechanics of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure you will break your brain. It will also lose the magic that makes it special.

The Problem with Critics and Low Intelligence Characters

Contemporaneous critics struggled with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure because it was, as Chris Williams of the LA Times suggested, “a glorification of dumbness for dumbnesses’ sake.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “painfully inept.” WaPo’s Hal Hinson: “undernourished.”

I’m not going to give critics a pass just because they’re critics. I’ve been in their seat and I chose to walk away after a couple of years because the job of being a critic started to suck the joy out of moviegoing. If my job is to watch a movie and find fault, my focus naturally drifts toward negativity. I found reasons to dislike movies and hated the terrible movies even more. Dumb characters in a high-concept movie full of logic gaps and impossible (not just improbable) scenarios almost necessitates a killjoy hammer.

bill and ted's excellent adventure rufus
One of the most ingenious casting decisions and happy accidents of all time — George Carlin as Rufus, Bill & Ted’s “Virgil.”

How often have you read a review by a critic that acknowledged that a movie fails most standard narrative tests of success, but excels because it’s just a good time? (It happens, but it’s rare and I’m always surprised to see it.) Can you ever imagine Bosley Crowther admitting something was pretty dumb but still a ripping good time? (If you know of a review in which this happens, I’d love to read it.)

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure outsmarts its audience?

Moviegoers, however, are not saddled with the honus of specific scrutiny at the expense of the overall experience. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, like the best of the pure entertainment 1980’s, presents joie de vivre. The characters’ intelligence doesn’t pose an artificial barrier to their success. In many instances stupid characters arrest the narrative as a result of an inability to movie the plot forward.

Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter boast tremendous on-screen chemistry, as if they’re acting as displaced halves of the same brain. You could analyze Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure from dozens of different directions, but the success of the film relies on this synergy.

bill and ted's excellent adventure napoleon
Napoleon fighting a teenage girl for the last spoonful of ice cream remains an inspired narrative aside.

Though lacking in book smarts (Caesar will always remain “a salad dressing dude”), Bill and Ted demonstrate quick wits and even an ability manipulate the logic of the film, thereby outsmarting the viewer that’s assured himself of his higher intelligence because he knows a thing or two about Napoleon. One of the most magnificent moments in the film undermines that relationship and involves Ted’s dad’s missing keys.

Early in the movie, Ted’s dad asks Ted about these keys, but he has no clue to their whereabouts. When Bill and Ted need to rescue their historical figures from jail, they claim they’ll go back in time, steal the keys, and put them outside the police station. Presto! The keys appear, as if by magic behind the sign — but it’s not magic — it’s our “dumb” characters riffing on the concept of the time-travel film and playing with audience expectation. They might not know how to pronounce “Socrates” correctly, but they’re clever enough in a crisis to manipulate time and space on the fly. “Hey! It was me who stole my dad’s keys!”

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Final Thoughts

When I revisited Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time in many years, I worried it wasn’t going to hold the same spell over me. Indeed, I started to dissect the movie to see how the nuts and bolts held it together. I focused on the time-travel fallacy and questioned how or why any of it would have worked.

It still didn’t matter.

bill and ted's excellent adventure circuits of time
The “circuits of time” have no aged well, but they still fit the scale and aspiration of the film.

I found myself enjoying the ways the movie manipulated expectation (the scene with the keys, for example, or the early meeting of the Bill and Teds) despite acknowledging the smoke and mirrors. A viewer will only care to pick apart a narrative if they’re not entertained to distraction. Pure entertainment doesn’t necessitate the “how” or the “why;” it just requires a willing ignorance… or embrace of our own dumbness as viewers. With regards to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure I’m more than happy to glorify my own dumbness if it means I can still feel childlike enjoyment while watching movies.

The face-value absurdity of Joan of Arc taking over an aerobics class or Genghis Khan attacking a sporting goods store on a skateboard, Beethoven commandeering two electric pianos. Napoleon throwing a tantrum at a water park called Waterloo. These remain simple, bordering upon lazy gags — albeit simple gags blessed with an ingenious high-concept wrapper.

Director Stephen Herek had a solid 1980’s movie career before the studios got ahold of him and ushered him into routine, forgettable fare. He began his career with Critters, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and The Mighty Ducks (all crowd pleasers) before taking on more “grown-up” films like Mr. Holland’s Opus, Rock Star, and Holy Man. The pace of those so-called “dumb” movies just agreed with him.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure cost $10million to make and returned $40million, but it wouldn’t be made today. $10million for a dumb teen comedy (without more exploitative elements) has no place in our present day box office. Thankfully its stars and writers (Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon) recognize that the Bill and Ted chemistry remains special. Even if studios would never greenlight that movie today — at least someone had the sense to continue the Excellent Adventure.

Casting Martha Davis (The Motels), Clarence Clemons (Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band) and Fee Waybill (The Tubes) as the Leaders of the future made for great cameos that I wouldn’t totally understand until I finally recognized Clemons. And I was a big fan of The Motels.

Bill and Ted will return in the Summer of 2020 with Bill & Ted Face the Music. Not bad for two idiot teens from Sam Dimas, California that surprised us all with a deceptively smart, super dumb movie back in 1989.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is available on a Shout Factory Blu-ray set — Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Collection — alongside it’s totally bodacious sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.