The year is 2022, Marine Captain John Robbins (Ray Liotta) is convicted of murder and sent to a ruthless maximum security prison. Run by a sadistic warden (Michael Lerner), the prison has the ultimate solution for its most troublesome inmates - Absolom. This is a secret jungle island where prisoners are abandoned and left to die - a prison with just one rule: the survival of the fittest. Robbins must choose to join one of two enemy camps; the Outsiders, anarchistic savages who live by force and violence - overseen by the insane Marek (Stuart Wilson), or the Insiders, a smaller group of peaceful men led by a former surgeon known as the Father (Lance Henriksen). With fierce battles between the rival groups and his struggle for survival, Robbins must find a way to escape or die. Since the whole venture is a sadistic sideline for the prison warden, he closely monitors events from an orbiting satellite to see than he always has things just as he wants them - inmates killing inmates.
A caption informs us that in the future prisons are big business. After a clever, visual, trick opening credits sequence which establishes the misdemeanour that gets Liotta life imprisonment, he and the audience are shown the delights of desert travel by monorail. In a neat twist on the prison-warden parlance years of prison movies have ingrained in audiences, nasty Michael Lerner tells Liotta "I run a multi-national business here". Of course, it's just hours after arriving at the maximum security prison, that Captain Robbins gets on the wrong side of Lerner and thereby secures his deportation to the top secret Absolom. Liotta's ex-Special Forces character is somewhat schizophrenic - one moment he is super mean tough guy, the next he is caring, understanding, all blue eyes and soft smiles. After we get a little insight into his past via crazed vet flashbacks and best-forgotten memories, it is true that this duality is explained to a degree. However, cynics might suggest that something as simple as making him appealing to both macho male viewers and doting female fans in turn was the real explanation.
Although the scenario offers little out of the expected range - from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome to Lord of The Flies - the screenplay does catch the viewer off balance sometimes with its approach. Those expecting a standard prison genre movie, like the dull Fortress, will be caught off guard at every turn by the surprises that writers Michael Gaylin and Joel Gross manage to wring out of Richard Herley's The Penal Colony - the novel on which it was based. The casting is a slipshod combination. Don Henderson as a spirit-brewing, one-armed Insider is a spectacularly unoriginal character, and the impeccably turned-out Ernie Hudson as the head of Insider security is grating and unconvincing. Lance Henriksen, who has made something of a major side-career starring in minor fantasy genre films in recent years, predictably cast as the wise Father, is good if uninspiring. Stuart Wilson deserves special mention as the marvellously nutty Marek, leader of the wild Outsiders, who serves up his own unique form of 'law' and 'justice'. His character's personality, though one I'd never want to meet, is certainly memorable! The unexpected conclusion was another welcome surprise, a metaphor of Robbin's struggle for finding peace within himself, finally accepting one's fate. New Zealand-born director Martin Campbell's career rocketed after this when he went on to direct Pierce Brosnan's debut as James Bond in Goldeneye and then the ultterly superb The Mask of Zorro.
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