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411 Movies Top 5 01.31.14: Top 5 Prisoners Movies
Posted by Shawn S. Lealos on 01.31.2014

Welcome to Week 411 of the Movie Zone Top 5. My name is Shawn S. Lealos and you have entered my world.

The 411mania writers were given the following instructions: With Labor Day coming out (a movie about an escaped convict), we will count down our Top 5 Prisoner Movies. These can take place in jail (Shawshank Redemption, American History X) or prison escape movies (The Fugitive). - It can include Prisoner of War movies as well


Daniel Wilcox

Honourable Mentions: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Prophet, Scum, In the Name of the Father, Midnight Express

5. The Shawshank Redemption

This is the first of two Frank Darabont films to appear on my list and if we're all being completely honest, no list of best prison movies is complete without the pair of them. Tim Robbins and the wonderful Morgan Freeman star in a film that is universally acclaimed and widely recognised and one of the all-time greats and rightly so. The prison setting is essential to the film's themes of hope, freedom and integrity. Darabont's classic showcases how live a free life despite imprisonment or be trapped even when living on the outside depending on one's own mindset. Beautifully directed and featuring some phenomenal acting from the key players, The Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies that everyone has to see at some point in their lives.

4. The Great Escape

Loosely based on the escape from Stalag Luft III, The Great Escape features a number of outstanding acting turns from the likes of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, James Donald and more. That's a list of some very creditable actors and as such it should come as no surprise that this film turned out as well as it did. This was (and remains to this day) one of those films that my dad would have on television pretty much every time it was being shown, usually a couple of times around Christmas, so as I kid I recall seeing bits of it at a time. Upon eventually watching it start to finish you realise what a masterpiece it is. It's a wonderful piece of storytelling and well-directed by John Sturges.

3. American History X

My first exposure to Ed Norton was actually through Fight Club, and American History X was a film I watched shortly after purely because his name was attached to it. It came as no surprise then, when Norton turned in such a brilliant performance for his role as Derek Vineyard, the son of a racist firefighter who is murdered by black drug dealers. The film depicts Derek and brother Danny's journey into the world of Neo-Nazism, Derek's time in prison for manslaughter of a black man and his struggle to save Danny from the world that he and his father lead him into. There's a lot of great acting involved here, it's well directed and it offers a social commentary still relevant to this day. The only reason it doesn't rank higher on the list is because barely half of the movie is actually set in the prison. the prison is vital to the story, however, serving as the catalyst for Derek to change his unworldly views.

2. Cool Hand Luke

"Sometimes nothing can be a cool hand." And thus the name Cool Hand Luke is born. Cool Hand Luke is one of the most quotable movies of all time and features noteworthy performances from Strother Martin, George Kennedy and of course Paul Newman as the titular character. Cool Hand Luke is a film about not conforming to what is expected of you by accepted social norms. It's about non-compliance with the system. Essentially, it can be summed up by the most famous of quotes, "what we've got here is failure to communicate." There's an argument to be made that the character of Luke isn't a reflection of any real-life inmate you would get in an American prison, and some feel the depiction of the prison camp is way off kilter, but so strong is Newman's performance that it becomes easy to look past any flaws this film might have because the titular character is one of the all-time great movie heroes and as a viewer, you have no choice but to get behind him and back his escape to freedom, which ultimately proves fatal.

1. The Green Mile

We started the list of with a Frank Darabont film adapted from a Stephen King novel and we're going to finish the list in the exact same way. Much like my father and The Great Escape, The Green Mile is one of those films that I will watch on television every single time I come across, even if it's two-thirds of the way through. Tom Hanks is an outstanding actor and this film features one of his best performances, and I'm shocked there was no Academy Award nomination for him. The late, great Michael Clarke Duncan did get a nomination for his work, and there's plenty of other worthy acting performances here as well. At just over three hours long the film offers an insight into life on death row. It features some truly great, multi-dimensional characters, some of whom you truly get behind and some you can't stand, exactly how the director wanted it to be. Undeniably the star of the show is Duncan's John Coffy. You can argue about the portrayal as Coffy as a "magical Negro" all you like but the fact of the matter is Duncan played the character to perfection. I'm a massive fan of the majority of Stephen King's work, and it's a testament to those involved that The Green Mile on film far outclasses the King's own written word.

Terry Lewis

Honorable Mentions - It always seems to be rerun on the free channels on the UK every holiday season yet I can still fall into a nice, easy half hour of Chicken Run whenever it's on. I do like The Green Mile as a Stephen King fan as it's a step away from his usual horror schtick. The Shawshank Redemption was one of the first DVD's I ever brought for my Playstation 2 (Remember when they were the cheapest DVD players at a brief moment in time?) and it's still in my collection today - to be honest,, I'm more surprised the plastic hasn't rotted away.

5. Escape To Victory

I only watched this recently having grown up on a staple diet of 1960's British World War Two movies (more on that later) as the odd one out. Based on a true story, what is there to hate as an Allied Forces P.O.W. soccer football team taking on the Nazi equivalent in a propaganda move during wartime, whilst the Allied team plot their escape. Perhaps most notable outside Britain as one of Sly Stallone's early, post Rocky films, Escape To Victory is based more of the spirit of moral in prison camps in the war. After scrambling a goal back after going 4-0 down at half time amidst a dirty Nazi team and biased refereeing, the insane levels of optimism from Michael Caine to go back out there would persuade any man to return to the field in the words of "But We Can Win This." To some it's a bit of a guilty pleasure, but as a film about the actual sport of soccer, it's actually well shot with some of the moves picked up well enough to follow and there's some of the cream of the crop in recognisable football talent with Pele, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles and most of the prolific Ipswitch Town team that won the 1981 UEFA Cup. Very entertaining oddity.

4. The Great Escape

Perhaps THE Prison Break film, The Great Escape is probably the most pure of all the 60's WW2 films. There's no real grim conditions like you would expect nowadays in a war film. Instead this is a film about clean suited officers doing the right thing with good honest Brits getting one over the Germans by escaping their little prison camp, in a time capsule of purity with no real darkness or evil involved. Steve McQueen puts in a shift and it's always gutting to see his escape failure. In fact, what makes the film endearing is the fact it's about failure. Only single figures of the 250 actually escape and there's a variety of fates waiting for those got recaptured. Iconic.

3. Cool Hand Luke

Not to say that you lot across the pond can't do prison films ever. Paul Newman's finest hour in Cool Hand Luke is a simply magnificent piece of cinema. A film all about hope and never giving in no matter the odds, Newman's Luke is probably one of the most mesmerising characters you'll ever see. He's like that new cool kid who comes into your school one day and disrupts the status quo instantly. So many memories from this film stick out from my mind - Road in a day, "Now we do nothing", "What we got here..." and of course 50 boiled eggs. Captivating and still holds up today.

2. Con Air

I believe I've let slip of my love of Con Air before in this column but why not have too much of a good thing? Cameron Poe played by a still relevant Nicholas Cage is just hitching a ride home to his wife and the daughter he's never met on a prison aircraft filled with the worst prisoner imaginable. All well and good until he finds himself in the middle of a prison break ON THE GODDAMN AIRPLANE! A highly entertaining Jerry Bruckheimer piece of escapism, an incredibly watchable cast step in at the right moments to continually raise the bar before the magnificent blow off on the Las Vegas strip. Happy landings!

1. Escape From New York

For a jailbreak film, nothing can top one of the masters of sci-fi and horror John Carpenter's finest efforts with the misadventures of Snake Pliskin in Escape From New York. In the futuristic year of 1997, crime in the US has gotten so bad they moved all the criminals to Manhatten Island and the outskirts are policed. Inside it's a haven for criminals, so it's possibly the worst place for Air Force One to crash. With the US President holding important world peace documents, Snake is charged to bring the President and his documents back. This film is a highly satisfactory mood piece set against the aftermath of Watergate in Carpenter's words and it has some mental concepts. Kurt Russell's Pliskin is iconic and has a cult following who is nearly, nearly, upstaged by Isaac Hayes' Duke Of NYC. It may look a bit poor and shabby today but it probably suits how degenerate the Big Apple would probably become if you put all the criminals of the USA there. Gripping action with a old but relevant message with one of the most bad ass heroes ever.

Bryan Kristopowitz

Honorable Mentions: Gamer (2009), Caged Heat (1974), The Running Man (1987), The Rock (1996), American History X (1998), Let's Go to Prison (2006), Lock Up (1989), The Green Mile (1999), Stir Crazy (1980), No Escape (1994)

5. Hard Justice

Hard Justice is probably martial artist David Bradley's best movie. It features his badass ATF character Nick Adams going undercover in a hellish prison to try to figure out who killed his old friend/partner, who had been working undercover in the same prison. Adams gets his ass kicked by the warden (a brilliant Charles Napier) and his sadistic henchman with the nasty night stick, but since Adams is a badass ATF agent and, well, David Bradley, you just know he's going to figure out what's really going on inside, what happened to his old partner, and he's going to bring all of the bad guys down. Clabe Hartley is awesome as Nick's ATF boss, and Yuji Okumoto gives one of the sleaziest performances of the 1990's as Jimmy the gun runner (and watch for Vernon Wells as a weird ass prisoner and the great Professor Toru Tanaka in a hilarious cameo). Awesome stuff.

4. Escape Plan

This Sylvester Stallone/Ahnold Schwarzenegger prison flick tanked at the North American box office, but I'm sure it will eventually find its audience on home video (I think it's coming out in February). It's a slick, well made action flick that has Stallone playing a professional prison escape artist who ends up trapped inside a private prison run by a malevolent warden (Jim Caviezel in full on scumbag mode). Stallone's character eventually hooks up with Ahnold's character and they come up with a plan to get out. The movie has some nifty surprises (the reality of the prison may blow your mind) and is just chock full of great performances. Ahnold gives the acting performance of his career (there's a scene where Ahnold is in solitary that will rock your world), the great Vinnie Jones shows up as a sick bastard, and the Sam Neill shows up as a mercenary doctor who struggles with his conscience (and Vincent D'Onofrio, man, what a jerk). Please, see this when it hits video. It really is worth seeing.

3. Escape From New York

John Carpenter's second collaboration with Kurt Russell (their first was on the TV movie Elvis) has Russell as Snake Plissken, a badass outlaw forced to infiltrate a massive prison to rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance). The prison, New York City, is chock full of psychos and all around bad guys, making Snake's trip that much more difficult. Snake's biggest threat is the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the island prison's leader who wants to break everyone out and destroy America (essentially. I mean, I can't imagine what else he would want to do). Filled with suspense, action, and humor, Escape From New York is one of John Carpenter's best movies, and something you absolutely must see if you haven't already. Ernie Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom goddamn Atkins, Charles Cyphers... man, this movie is awesome.

"Call me Snake."

"The name's Plissken." Ha.

2. Stalag 17

Stalag 17 tells the story of a German POW camp in World War II. The camp is filled with captured American soldiers. Now, based on that description you would think the movie would be horrific. But it isn't. It's actually a comedy of sorts (it essentially inspired the TV show Hogan's Heroes). William Holden gives a great performance as the shifty Sgt. Sefton (he won an Oscar for this movie), an American POW who is out for himself, but the stand-out performance belongs to Robert Strauss as Animal, the goofy POW that, when he isn't engaged in hijinks with Harvey Lembeck's Shapiro, is lusting after Betty Grable and or women in general (he flips out when he sees a group of women walk to an outdoor shower facility). It isn't all fun and games, though. The Nazis are scumbags and are just terrible, terrible people. And the guy that turns out to be a German spy inside the camp, well, he gets what's coming to him (director Billy Wilder sure did know how to balance the funny and the nasty stuff. It all fits). A classic through and through.

1. The Shawshank Redemption

Frank Darabont's adaptation of the Stephen King novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" is the kind of movie that you can't help but watch when it's on. It's harsh and nasty at times, yes, but it's also filled with brilliant humanity and performances that are awe inspiring. It's amazing to think that this movie didn't rack up award after award back in 1994-1995, but it didn't (it did get nominated for a bunch of things, but that really isn't the same as winning). Morgan Freeman is superb, Tim Robbins gives the performance of his career, and the Kurgan hisself Clancy Brown makes you despise him (I hated him more than Bob Gunton's warden character and that guy was a piece of shit). I love this movie more and more each time I see it, and, despite its subject matter (prison sucks), it's something I can see myself watching again and again into the future. It's just one of those movies.

Shawn S. Lealos

5. The Fugitive

There are a lot of prison break movies, but I think The Fugitive is one of the best. It is also one of the only movies based on an old TV show that was better than the source material. Harrison Ford played Dr. Richard Kimble, a man mistakenly accused of murdering his wife. He escapes and goes on the run to prove his innocence while a federal agent played by Tommy Lee Jones is on the manhunt trying to find him. The movie was a simple action movie that played better than anyone thought as it picked up seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture and won Jones the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

4. Out of Sight

Steven Soderbergh directed the Elmore Leonard novel Out of Sight in 1998 and proved that he was the man who was the best fit for Ocean's Eleven. The movie was about as cool as you can get, George Clooney was at the top of his game, and this was BY FAR the best Jennifer Lopez performance ever. A fun bit of trivia is that Michael Keaton played Ray Nicolette in the movie, the same character he played in the Quentin Tarantino movie Jackie Brown.

3. Shawshank Redemption

I am a huge Stephen King fan, so it is clear that one of his prison adapted stories would make my list. I am choosing one of the best movies of all time, the movie that still sits atop the IMDb list of best movies. It's really one of the best feel good movies ever made and is arguably the best adaptation of a King story for the big screen.

2. Face/Off

I count this and that is all there is to it. Nic Cage is a killer who has his face removed and attached to John Travolta's cop's face so he can go undercover and find where the bad guys have set up bombs. Unfortunately, Cage wakes up and kills everyone holding him in the prison, steals Travolta's face and has it attached to him and sets out to make Travolta's life hell. With everyone thinking the good guy is now the bad guy, he is forced to prove his innocence. This movie is John Woo's best American-made movie and one of the most entertaining action movies of all time.

1. Bronson

If you thought Tom Hardy was great as Bane in Dark Knight Rises, you ain't seen nothing yet. If you thought Drive was a great movie, you have to see Bronson, the movie that Nicolas Winding Refn made three years before that. The movie is based on the true story of a man sentenced to seven years in prison for robbing a post office, only to end up behind bars for 30 years, almost all of it in solitary confinement because all he likes to do is fight. He takes on the name Charles Bronson, based on the legendary actor, and Refn turns the movie into one of the most spectacularly violent films since Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange. The movie is damn near brilliant and proved to me that Tom Hardy was a HUGE star before most of the world figured that one out.


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