For the handful of films and shows that were bravely, or often stupidly, marched into production during last year’s shutdown (one that continues to severely damage the industry), two key questions needed to be answered. First, can it be done safely with all precautions taken to protect the health of cast and crew? And second, is this project really worth it, worth all of the myriad difficulties attached, both financial and logistical? For talky heist romcom Locked Down, it appears as if safety was ensured and maintained (unlike many other shoots, no word emerged of on-set infections) but vitally, the small matter of “but should we?” appears to have been crucially, and tragically, overlooked. For not only would the film have been an insufferable bore without a global pandemic raging on but given the added stresses and strains and possible danger involved in making it now, its existence feels like even more of an offence, a head-smashingly redundant waste of time, talent, energy and resources, a shockingly early yet entirely convincing contender for worst film of the year.
Its straight-out-of-the-gate awfulness recalls writer, and Peaky Blinders creator, Steven Knight’s similarly disastrous January stinker Serenity which kicked off 2019 as the year’s most heinous and impressively held that position through to the bitter end. But that film, a pretentious noir thriller starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and a giant tuna named Justice, had a twist so hilariously stupid that by the end it became a fun two-bottles-of-wine hate-watch. This time around, however, the only fun one might have is mercifully switching it off in the first act and doing genuinely anything else instead (staring at a blank wall in total silence would be preferable).
What makes its stench that much harder to endure is that in a different universe, with a very different script, there’s something here that could have flown, especially at this moment. On paper, and in the deceptively snappy trailer, the idea of two attractive, charismatic and adept movie stars flirting and arguing their way through a pandemic-assisted Harrods diamond heist seems like a giddy way to spend yet another night stuck in front of the TV. But even an experienced director like Doug Liman, who assembled not dissimilar ingredients with a far surer hand in the slick and entertaining Mr and Mrs Smith, can’t find enough room to breathe with Knight’s ungainly, faux-intellectual dialogue suffocating every scene. As the warring soon-to-be-criminal couple, trapped in a west London house together during the pandemic, a returning Hathaway (who really should know better) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who deserves much better), also find it hard to sell or even understand much of the sub-latter-day Woody Allen-esque waffle they’re stuck with, sentenced to lines that are both overwritten yet underdeveloped. There are also brief Zoom cameos from Ben Stiller, Mindy Kaling, Stephen Merchant and Ben Kingsley, who can all at least explain away their low-stakes involvement as the result of sheer boredom.
We’ve already seen that frantically scrambling together a film during lockdown can result in unlikely greatness, as proved last summer by Rob Savage’s ingenious, micro-budget cyber-horror Host, but when scrambled together without care or time for a much-needed second, third, fourth and fifth draft of the script, the end-product can be forgettable at best and embarrassing at worst. Locked Down is both and more, a dull assemblage of half-thought-through ideas written with such utter shoddiness, it’s a miracle HBO Max ended up buying it (its swift last-minute dump implies some serious buyer’s remorse). As a heist movie it’s willfully unexciting and fully incompetent, with a barely comprehensible and bizarrely unmotivated scheme riddled with glaring plot-holes and as a romantic comedy, it’s equally dead on arrival thanks to a pair of lovers who hardly make sense as fictional characters let alone real people. Both actors work admirably hard at putting a sheen on the material, using their considerable combined charm for some painfully heavy lifting, but as the punishingly overlong two-hour film progresses (it will be a miracle if even half of its viewers make it past the midpoint), they find it impossible to do anything other than keep their heads down in shame and race to the finale, hoping to emerge unscathed.
The film is hinged on a rather regrettable gender dynamic that suggests the pair – her, an accomplished bread-winning businesswoman and him, a sober wannabe poet called Paxton who’s lost his “wild” side after being forced into a low-level driving job because he was convicted of killing a man in a noble fight years earlier (!?!?!) – would be much happier if they returned to a more traditional “Me Tarzan, You Jane” set-up. Knight’s script possesses an equally tiresome view of the lockdown, painted as an annoyance rather than a necessary safety measure (described as “idiotic” and “insane” during one of many unbearable monologues) and the film never once seems to take any notice of the damage inflicted by the virus, just how bored it makes our central duo. Their boredom is made even more exhausting when coupled with their extreme privilege, both holed up in a luxurious multi-level house in an affluent borough as the world crashes around them. There are many, many misfiring attempts at comedy (isn’t Zoom annoying lol etc) but no joke lands with quite as much of a thud as Ejiofor’s driver being forced to use the fake name of Edgar Allen Poe while being convinced that security guards would be too uneducated to know who that is. It’s a recurring gag that’s as snobby as it is dreadfully unfunny and like much of the surrounding film it leaves a sour, unpleasant taste that lingers.
Rather than just providing us with a serviceable caper, Knight ambitiously aims for profundity instead, a decision that kills his limp film at birth (“Even before the fucking virus we were all locked down in our own routines” is the level of insight we’re left with). It’s a moronic script written as if it’s actually incredibly smart, leading to the worst kind of bad movie, reaching for the stars but tripping over itself before it can even stand up. My advice for surviving 2021 is simple: wear a mask, wash your hands and please, please keep your distance from Locked Down.