Escape from Death Block 13 (2021)
Gary Jones is no stranger to schlock. The writer and director’s feature debut was 1994’s Mosquito about killer mosquitos that have fed on the blood of dying aliens. His filmography also includes such amusing titles as Crocodile 2: Death Swamp, Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter’s Cove, Planet Raptor, and 2013’s Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan, which was filmed in Ohio and featured several actors that have appeared in other Ohio indies I’ve reviewed, like Dan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Kristina Kopf (The Street Where We Live), and Thomas Downey (Evil Takes Root). Jones knows his schlock. Escape from Death Block 13 is the man’s ode to the prison escape thrillers of the 1970s, and it even stars a lead actor who looks remarkably like Charles Bronson. I hoped that Death Block 13 was going to be the good kind of low-budget indie, the one that swerves into its schlocky genre trappings and limitations. However, too many of its creative limitations felt more notable, from limited actors, the limited location shoot, and especially the limited plot development for payoffs and action goodness.
Mick (Robert Bronzi) is a recent immigrant trying to set right his brother’s fate. He visits his dead brother’s boss, Renda (Nicholas Turturro), and demands the money cheated from his brother. Renda’s goons rough up Mick, and in the scuffle, Mick shoots a gun in defense and he’s the one arrested and charged with attempted murder. Inside the deadly prison, life is rough that the guards will let the prisoners fight to grievous harm because they have bets on who will win. Mick becomes a favorite of Warden Jack (Debbie Scaletta) who pressures him to go along and assist with her lucrative smuggling business of guns and drugs. Mick refuses and makes himself a target. He’ll need to adjust to life behind bars, stand up to the bullies, and plot his escape with the secret tunnels located under the grounds of the prison.
The question arises how far a Charles Bronson lookalike can get you as far as entertainment value, and that’s going to be a question for the soul of every viewer. The movie feels like it was a Cannon production, where the poster and title were the selling point and the rest, well we’ll get to that when we need to. The central image of a man that looks like Charles Bronson, holding a gun, looking grimaced, with a title about a prison break, it all feels meant to target a certain audience’s favorable memories of Bronson and his own popular action filmography. Low-budget exploitation genre movies have been made for less, so it’s not a damnable sin, but it sure means that the movie’s transparent intention to rest on its familiar elements needs to be overcome with story, characters, and most importantly, memorable action and ridiculous moments to satiate an audience’s genre appetites. Escape from Death Block 13 mostly gets there when the escape part happens, but beforehand, it’s a sloppy action movie that can test your patience because there are too many reminders of its own scaled-down shortcomings.
Chief among them is casting Bronzi as the lead. It feels like the mere casting of this Hungarian acrobat, stuntman, and Judo player, as per his bio, was the starting and ending point for his character. He’s an immigrant looking to avenge his brother and immediately gets thrown into the middle of a conflict as everyone seems to be incorrectly judging him (subtle commentary on the audience expectations?) based on his appearance. The gang thinks he’s up to no good, the other prisoners and the warden think he’s a troublemaker, and the law thinks he could be their missing piece and assist to bring down the corrupt warden. It could almost be self-parody the way every new batch of characters project an identity onto this blank hulk of a man. I think even Bronzi is leaning into this helpful projection and association with Charles Bronson. His real name is Charles Kovacs, but Bronzi sure sounds closer to Bronson. He also starred in Once Upon a Time in Deadwood, working to associate Bronson’s Once Upon a Time in the West, as well as the HBO Western series, and Death Kiss, working to associate Bronson’s Death Wish. Again, congrats to Bronzi for finding himself a career as a Charles Bronson stand-in. I look forward to the man’s continued career of kind of reminding people of the departed Bronson.
However, Bronzi is not a terribly good actor. His line readings are resolutely stiff, and his accent is thick, so it can be hard to understand what he’s saying with his flat affect. There’s one joke where he makes fun of another prisoner for not understanding his accent, but I didn’t quite understand the joke because I was having trouble with his vocal articulation. To the man’s credit he definitely has a presence and can convincingly strike an intimidating pose. He’s comfortable with the fight choreography though it’s nothing too complex to be strenuous. His emotional acting range and vocal delivery is another matter. I think the limited nature of Bronzi’s ability forced the filmmakers to minimize the number of lines and dramatic scenes for his character, thus making him even less distinct and relying more on his passing impression.
I legitimately think the movie could have been improved had everyone been dubbed. Bronzi is not the only actor of limited range in the movie, he’s just the one with the most screen time. There are many supporting actors who were clearly hired for their physical prowess rather than thespian abilities. These actors would say lines and it would make me giggle at points. There are other actors who take one note, like the police officer in an interrogation scene trying to go full intense exasperation mode, and then deliver every line in this narrow acting space. It’s moments like this where the movie feels destined to willfully drift into unintentional self-parody. I think having a purposely dubbed audio track would provide two benefits: 1) it would allow better vocal actors to lift some of the lackluster performances, and 2) it would further cement the movie’s silly schlock factor and give the audience permission to laugh along with. The best actor in the entire movie is the prison doctor and just for the one scene where he dies. After being injected with a deadly dosage, he goes into cardiac arrest and the actor is so dedicated, so over-the-top, and so prolonged in his death throes that I had to celebrate the man’s gumption. Here was a guy who took what was handed to him and found a way to make it delightful. I wish every actor was on this same tonal wavelength of good-bad rather than just dull-bad.
Once the titular escape happens, the movie jolts to a new life, enough so that I wish we could have gotten things moving faster. The last twenty minutes of the movie is replete with chaotic violence and over-the-top blood shots. The action is adequately choreographed and fast-paced enough to offer several different set pieces and cross-action to keep your attention. It’s all over the place, it’s more whole-heartedly schlocky, and the frantic pacing is a definite bonus. The problem is that as a prison break movie there wasn’t really any definite reasons why the characters had to wait until this late moment to stage their escape. Usually, these kinds of movies introduce the system of the prison so we understand the routines so that they can then be exploited, like a con or a heist job. We need to know the particular steps for the payoff to feel rewarding. Otherwise, like in Death Block 13, it just feels arbitrary. The evil warden doesn’t come across as too formidable. The guards are not too formidable. These people are not the smartest criminals in the world of smuggling. And the inmates could have banded together at any point and easily overthrown this weak power dynamic. Even the heavy-duty Gatling gun attached to the lookout tower isn’t too hard to overcome. The obstacles are vague or weak, thus making it feel like the big escape could have happened as soon as Mick was thrown into this pokey.
The movie was filmed in the Mansfield Reformatory, the same famously depicted in 1994’s Shawshank Redemption, but at points it sure doesn’t feel that way. I don’t know the exact budget-conscious decisions of the production or the shortcuts they had to work through, but there are several sequences inside and outside the prison that are obviously green screen. It made me start to meticulously examine the visuals and see if it was indeed the famous penitentiary or some other set meant to be stitched together through the power of editing. It’s possible the movie had a very limited availability to shoot inside the prison, so they took extensive pictures to recreate as a more convenient green screen background. I’m uncertain. The green screen work isn’t bad by any means but pretty obvious to the eye and limits the potential visual arrangements for staging the action, which can often resort to shot-reverse shot redundancy.
If the rest of the movie was like its concluding act, I would be recommending Escape from Death Block 13 to fans of low-budget schlocky action and fans of Charles Bronson. It’s strange to think part of the major appeal of this movie is that it stars a guy who strongly resembles another guy that was in movies decades ago that people mostly remember liking. The general association of other, better movies seems to be much of the creative backbone of this movie. The story isn’t packed with careful setups and payoffs, built upon a foundation of obstacles and mini-goals that need to be accomplished before the big escape finish. It relies too heavily on cliched genre moments, like multiple prison yard fights, and the riot ends in a hostage negotiation that could have been its own movie itself rather than a pat conclusion. The movie is weighed down by the acting limitations of its lead who looks the part but fails to do much more on screen. It’s an action movie that, even with caveats and understanding of its limits, manages to disappoint. I wish this had been crazier, or better plotted, or filled with more colorful and arresting characters, or bigger villains, or anything really. It’s an action movie that feels like the ghosts of other, better action movies starring a man who might as well be the living ghost of Charles Bronson.
Nate’s Grade: C