Did any of you see Adam Mason's 'Songbird' that was released last month? You probably heard about it at some point, the Michael Bay-produced thriller that said "yeah COVID-19 is bad, what if we make a movie out of it right now?" I bring it up to make a point; yes, it was inevitable that storytellers were going to turn to the COVID-19 pandemic for material at some point, but the majority of attitudes I've heard have been a resounding sense of "WHY?"
If you're going to mine something topical, especially something causing anxiety and suffering in almost every corner of the planet at the time of its release, you'd better have a pretty compelling, populist story hook and distinct style to attract audiences to it. That's why 'Songbird' got an overwhelming pass from me, as I just had no interest in a COVID-based movie that seemed to revel in the worst kind of nihilistic hypotheticals because audiences were just clamoring for THAT kind of escapism nowadays.
Now granted, that's not to say it can't be done and, to be fair, 'Locked Down,' the newest straight-to-HBO MAX project from Doug Liman, looked to be a bit of a different direction. The concept was simple and intriguing, the cast looked great under any other circumstances, and Doug Liman has been known to mine interesting subtext out of high-concept stories ('The Bourne Identity,' 'Edge of Tomorrow,' etc.). But still, it's a pandemic-set movie released DURING a pandemic, equipped with (at least from the marketing) a triggering degree of normalcy regarding its source material; this couldn't be anything beyond a novelty, right?
Well here's the thing: I'm not going out on that much of a ledge for 'Locked Down.' For a high concept heist comedy, it's not always paced well, the writing can feel a bit too big for its own britches, and that's not even getting into the obvious source material that, inevitably, won't go over well with audiences seeking literally anything else. Yet for all of the obvious forces against it, I was kind of impressed by 'Locked Down.' Yes, the cast is more than capable of pulling this off, but I was more surprised by how resonant it actually feels, trying to reconcile interpersonal (and in this case confined) relationships while showing those confides by pressures exaggerated by the current pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, London, like many cities around the world, goes into lockdown to try and slow the spread of the virus. Paxton (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Linda (played by Anne Hathaway) are a couple on the brink of separating when the pandemic hits, causing them to begrudgingly stay home with one another. Linda works as a fashion company executive, while Paxton mostly works as a delivery driver due to a previous criminal charge obscuring his job opportunities.
When Paxton's boss, Malcolm (played by Ben Kingsley) needs a replacement driver, he gives Paxton a fake ID to mask his record. The job is a delivery out of Harrod's department store, where, as it turns out, Linda has been tasked with securing and maintaining the company's most valuable items, including a diamond valued at 3 million pounds and its fake counterpart.
After considering the limited personnel at the store due to pandemic restrictions and that the diamond would be shipped to storage, Linda and Paxton realize that they have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to steal and sell the diamond, splitting the money between themselves and the National Health Service. But the heist proves itself to be a bit trickier than that, between the alternating security clearances and the couple's own relationship dynamics prove to be shifting day by day.
The things that kind of made me appreciate 'Locked Down' was how the actual narrative gets framed. Yes, the setting and set-up are what they are, but Liman's approach, aided by writer Steven Knight ('Locke,' 'Peaky Blinders') is to use the setting and characters to dissect the potential aftermath and effects of the pandemic rather than just exploiting its early days.
We get to follow Paxton and Linda's very different, but equally poignant, stakes as characters. While Paxton is incredibly smart, due to a past misdemeanor, he is stuck in a position that is by all accounts essential, just not to those who would recognize that potential. Meanwhile, Linda is a high level executive, longing to pursue her own artistic passions, but under the heel of her her abroad cooperate constituents who expect her to put business over her longtime co-workers.
At the end of the day, more than its narrative heist, this is where I think the actual heft of the movie is; that the pandemic isn't just a stretch of delays that can be snapped back to normalcy and that those structural problems are just going to keep filtering outward for everyone.
Even though, again, that's all a lot of subtext, is the on-the-box description worth it? Well, I'd argue it works on both of its main promises, as stories of a dysfunctional couple and a lighting-in-a-bottle heist. Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor are both impeccably good here, working incredibly well off of each of their characters tendencies.
You get the sense that, had this opportunity not presented itself, they probably would be better off just going their separate ways. But because of the way the story is structured, we get time (albeit maybe a bit too much) to actually delve inwards and explore that drama which, to reiterate, is made pretty compelling.
As for the heist itself, for the most part, it does kind of capture that sensationalist tone to it. You can start putting together some of the earlier pieces to where we align with Paxton and Linda's eventual moment of "oh wow we could actually do this." Once it actually does come together, there's certainly all the tropes of a good heist movie (getting caught by a guard, the delayed security clearances, etc.), but again, that subtext underneath makes all the difference in actually upping the stakes.
Even if I acknowledge some of the surprises I found with 'Locked Down,' I'm not going to defend it that much. For as good as Hathaway and Ejiofor are, there are more than a few times were any potential drama can feel drowned out by a kind of "stage play" aesthetic to it all and not in a good way (even if I acknowledge shooting locations in a pandemic is what it is). I've also heard some criticisms about the tone, how the film doesn't feel snappy or confident enough for a heist film and I would concede that becomes an issue when your central heist doesn't actually come into play until about halfway through the film.
But beyond that, there is that double-edged sword of the film's set-up that I can see crossing the entire spectrum of cringe for a lot of audiences. It's like a mentioned earlier, if you're going to make pandemic-set films during the pandemic, that tight rope of commentating versus exploiting is going to be even thinner than usual if you want that same level of appeal.
I genuinely have to wonder whether 'Locked Down' will translate for audiences post-pandemic, whether its themes actually seem evident of it source material or if it just feels like a cheap time capsule made because Doug Liman still couldn't get 'Chaos Walking' released. But I weirdly don't feel nearly as cynical about it as I should.
The film is gimmicky and not quite as exciting as I'd like it to be, but for a January film (in the pandemic nonetheless) that is this well-acted and actually trying to address some legitimate issues in the guise of an absurd heist, you could do way worse. It's not going to be for everyone (nor should it be), but I think there's something interesting there, for whatever that's worth.
Overall, I give 'Locked Down' 7/10
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