Film Review: Locked Down (2021)

Directed by: Doug Liman; Runtime: 118 minutes
Grade: D+

We’re just about at the one-year point of the world having to get adjusted to a global pandemic, ranging from subtle food/delivery inconvenience and getting used to new ways of doing business to constantly avoid being infected with “essential” environments like grocery stores or hospitals. Then, there’s the concept of social distancing and the need for lockdowns, to which the isolation and claustrophobia can wreak havoc on the psyche of most people given enough time. These are significant themes worth exploring in popular culture, and clearly the prompt at the core of Locked Down, written by Steven Knight of Locke and Serenity fame and directed by indie/espionage guru Doug Liman. Forcing themselves to make the film happen in outrageously short order and under strict circumstances, the creative process reads more like following through with a challenge than an organic bottling-up of novel, timely ideas, and the hollow and forced execution of Locked Down show the symptoms of that.

The film begins honestly enough, capturing two sides of the lockdown in the United Kingdom through a couple in very different stages of their lives and different employment situations. Paxton (Chiewtel Ejiofor) is an ex-con driver who wallows in the grimness of his situation, feeling inherently cursed and having no qualms telling others about it either in-person or over video chat. Linda (Anne Hathaway), an expat, has climbed up the management ladder in a merchandising business and, as a result, gets repeatedly stuck on unpleasant Zoom calls, leading her into a stressed and substance-dependent state. Amid the lockdown, the two have decided to separate and move on with their lives just as soon as the restrictions are eased, but not before their circumstances align for one last rendezvous: the opportunity to steal something incredibly valuable that will perfectly set up their post-relationship lives.

Like the diversity of the scenarios that he’s previously written, the quality of Steven Knight’s scripts ranges from the intimately-scaled and poignant to the overly conceptual and artificial. His work in the single-car “thriller” Locke and the avant-garde desperation of Dirty Pretty Things bode well for pandemic isolation drama, but what happens in Locked Down, regardless of the best of intentions, never gets to authenticity. Sure, people will relate to Paxton’s delivery bag-snatching, poetry recitals in his neighborhood streets and the sleepless tension of being in a replaceable job, or with Linda’s prettied-up digital meetings -- where she copes with being the one who fires people -- and boozy dance sessions. The dialogue coming from the characters doesn’t read like genuine people dealing with these problems, though, but like high-profile actors in a stage play trying to empathize with an audience over the plights of everyday post-COVID citizens, especially the unprovoked Shakespearean lamentations of Paxton.

It would feel better to be able to say that Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway overcome the misgivings with their characters in Locked Down, that their natural dramatic poise still presents them as relatable personalities, but it doesn’t end up working that way. Hathaway borrows from her fierce, yet composed Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises for Linda, yet her frustration and rebelliousness don’t match up with how she got into this vague executive job in the first place, distracting from the film’s compelling overtone of managing human resources during the pandemic. Ejiofor’s burdened anxiety takes one back to his brilliant turn as a compromised illegal immigrant in Dirty Pretty Things, yet all his solemn speeches have a preachy calculation to them that weakens his presence as a neglected human being in the social spectrum. Substantive cameos surround them in the form of Zoom calls -- Ben Stiller, Mindy Kaling, Ben Kingsley, Stephen Merchant -- and their recognizability tends to be a double-edged sword, as they’re both dramatic support for the difficult voice-call medium and celebs literally phoning in their status quo.

These are all qualities that would reduce Locked Down from being a reputable, timely piece of work to being a flawed, yet acceptable melodrama with the best of intentions, but it’s the transition from those stagy dramatics into a pseudo-heist that ultimately leads to disappointment. The level of contrivance at work here cannot be understated, effortlessly bringing together the couple’s professions into a opportunity dropped in their laps at the perfect time, fueled by suspicious conditions that almost use the pandemic as a crutch whenever things become too unbelievable. Every aspect of what draws Paxton and Linda in the position of becoming criminals is rushed and negligent, with a nonstop chain of reckless phenomena and shameless holes, from the ratio of people who’d recognize the name Edgar Allen Poe to how likely someone’s going to check the authenticity of a multi-million-dollar acquisition upon receipt. Telling the audience that they won’t doesn’t automatically mean they’ll believe it.

Don’t expect either Ocean’s 11-style theatrics or something akin to Doug Liman’s more action-oriented momentum once the “heist” begins (Edge of Tomorrow is "an utterly absorbing blockbuster"; Bourne Identity is still a classic), and frankly, it isn’t clear whether Locked Down would be a better film with more of that included at the end. While the commitment to Paxton and Linda as grounded individuals may be commendable, the pandemic-themed glimpses at their lives aren’t considerable enough to make one care enough about their livelihoods to roll with this uninteresting, questionable excuse of a planned caper. As such, there’s little genre entertainment value in this climax to their story, driven only by the marginal tension of the close calls whenever one of many obvious peculiarities are close to being discovered. As it rides through its conclusion with blinders up to practical repercussions, Locked Down gets stuck in the limbo between remaining semi-realistic and allowing itself to do things like normal, and in the process misses the chance to shine in either area.


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