He tried not to go all Fred Olen Ray crazy again, he really did. But when Matty noticed that 101 Films had quietly made two more of the B-movie maestro’s Royal Oaks actioners available to stream on Prime UK, he just couldn’t help himself.
Despite construction on the high-tech slammer finishing in early 1996, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles sat dormant until 1997 due to a dearth of operational funds. In the interim, hoping to claw back at least a small chunk of the $400million it cost to build, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department hired out the 1.2million square foot big house to enterprising film crews. While Matthew Bright’s edge-lord Little Red Riding Hood update Freeway (1996) is probably the best-known production to lens at the then state of the art jail, Albert Pyun’s balletic shooter Mean Guns (1997) is the film that makes the grandest use of it.
Fred Olen Ray’s MAXIMUM SECURITY (1996) is a close second.
Though Maximum Security isn’t as strong as Fugitive Rage (1996), Inferno (1997) (we’ll get to that), and Fugitive Mind (1999) (Maximum Security sits with Prophet (1999) in the ‘flawed but interesting’ section of Ray’s ‘90s Royal Oaks Entertainment action spread), as a technical exercise, Ray and longtime cinematographer Gary Graver unleash several stirring moments of visual invention once they get inside the Twin Towers, composing shots that embellish the place’s angular design, and imbue the film with an alluringly clinical tone in keeping with the lock-up’s chilly sterility.
However, as amazing and value-increasing a location as the Twin Towers is, it’s maybe too big for Maximum Security’s story, which never finds an entirely happy medium between its ambitious scope and financial shortcomings. Indeed, as thoroughly enjoyable as it is — as much as the film rattles along at a fair ol’ clip, and as much as it tingles with a constant air of excitement — it’s bittersweet thinking what could have been if Ray had been given a splash more cash to play with (cf. the helmer’s subsequent, similarly structured, bigger-budgeted action romp Critical Mass (2001), which was produced by Royal Oaks successor Phoenician Entertainment). For instance, there’s an unfortunate sparsity caused by the lack of inmate extras, and scripter Sean O’Bannon is repeatedly forced to remind us why it’s so empty (only the first five felons have been moved in ahead of the jail’s grand opening. Happily, one of them is essayed by the ever-excellent Peter Spellos).
Another minor misstep is the decision to soften all but one of what few prisoners there are. Their incarcerations are largely either circumstantial or the result of being framed/being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Compared to, say, something like Simon Wincer’s Con Air (1997), which allowed us to enjoy the personalities of the crims at the heart of its drama but never let us forget how truly dangerous they were, Maximum Security is a little coy about its wonderfully twisted ‘lags vs. terrorists’ hook. It’s reluctant to declare any of its ‘birds a bastard deserving of their sentence — well, except Steve Scionti’s frazzled Mexican street thug.
Still, there’s a tremendous amount of fun to be had in this robust Die Hard (1988) behind bars. In addition to its rollicking pace and general feeling of rough n’ tumble giddiness, Maximum Security contains plenty of brilliantly orchestrated scenes of brawling and gun-fu, a terrific score by David Lawrence, and a bunch of nattily drawn central characters. Landon Hall and Paul Michael Robinson — the latter, as the gloriously named Mason Richter, fresh from Ray’s Friend of the Family II (1996) — make a decent fist of their canny, cartoon-type heroes, but it’s Arthur Roberts and the magnificent John LaZar who steal the show. Roberts is fabulous as the pompous and progressive warden who quickly exposes himself a coward when the shit hits the fan, and LaZar — reuniting with Ray and Hall following their ace erotic thriller Over the Wire (1996) — absolutely dominates as the endlessly quotable, wickedly mean-spirited, and ever-so-slightly effete jail-jacker wanting to start World War III.
As an interesting aside, Maximum Security, which formerly frequented U.S. cable as ‘Maximum Revenge’, caused a minor furore in the pages of Femme Fatales magazine c. late ‘95. As well as featuring the gorgeous Hall and the delicious Monique Parent as LaZar’s foxy right-hand woman, the film marked the return of scream queen Michelle Bauer post her first brief retirement. She appears as a doomed terrorist during Maximum Security’s snappy, plane-set preamble.
Shot over twenty-two days in July 1996 in the searing heat of Madras, India and boasting the distinction of being the first American movie to do so, the aptly titled INFERNO is Ray’s Royal Oaks action masterpiece. A feast for the senses, the film teems with a hypnotic aesthetic. Like the Twin Towers in Maximum Security, Ray and — yep — cinematographer Gary Graver milk their locations for all they’re worth, bolstering Inferno’s inherently exotic vibe with fluid camerawork and painterly framing.
Augmenting such ornately designed visuals are the dynamic falls performed by the Indian stunt team at Ray’s disposal. Coordinated by legendary Kollywood stuntman and action choreographer Rambo Rajkumar, their whirling, twirling, and occasionally out and out buffoonish flips and tumbles provide a striking, pizzazz-y exclamation mark to Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson’s bone-breaking bursts of kickboxing. Impressive, impactful, wince-inducing, and deliberately comical — hurting people in a B-flick has rarely looked so painful, stylish, and hilarious.
The eminently watchable Wilson toplines as a suspended Interpol agent whose attempts to unwind in India after supposedly — SUPPOSEDLY — causing the death of his partner (the rugged Rick Hill) are anything but relaxing. Instead, he finds himself toe-to-toe with an old, hulking nemesis (a tasty depiction of greed-fuelled ruthlessness by PM Entertainment regular Evan Lurie), and embroiled in a nasty tangle between MI6 (represented by Tane McClure, replete with plummy British accent); a slickly-dressed opium dealer (a mischievous Michael Cavanaugh); and a shady “new criminal element” called The Hydra.
Discounting Hill’s non-reveal as The Hydra’s king ding (the cult Deathstalker (1984) icon is back on screen in full villain mode within fifteen minutes of his apparent demise — a bizarre plotting choice since it’s presented to Wilson as a massive ‘surprise’ moment later on), Ray tackles the twists within — double yep — Sean O’Bannon’s tricksy and thrilling script with thunderous aplomb. Ostensibly a crisply penned and gently spoof-y 007 homage (it’s basically Live and Let Die (1973) meets GoldenEye (1995) in India), at Inferno’s core are a wealth of ideas seemingly tailored to Ray’s thematic obsessions, the thrust of O’Bannon’s writing hinging upon ambiguous allegiances, grey moral areas, and uneasy relationships a la Ray’s other keynote texts Armed Response (1986), Alienator (1990), Inner Sanctum (1991), and Cyberzone (1995).
Featuring Jill ‘Mrs. Graver’ Kesner and Hindi superstars Deepti Bhatnagar and R. Madhavan among its cast, Inferno was exec produced by Roger Corman and released on video in the U.S. under the title ‘Operation Cobra’ by New Horizons as part of Corman’s domestic output agreement with Royal Oaks. It landed on video store shelves on 24th February 1998 — just over a year after New Horizons had distributed Maximum Security on cassette, on 18th February 1997. Here in the U.K., Maximum Security was issued on tape by Guild Home Video in summer ‘97. A physical release of Inferno remains absent.
Original VHS art courtesy of VHS Collector