Review: ‘Lockout’ sends Guy Pearce into space without a decent script

If you’re casting a badass agent on a mission to clear his name and save the President’s daughter from an outer space prison in a sci-fi thriller, obviously the first name you think of is… Guy Pearce?

The English-born, Australian-raised Pearce has had a bizarre career over the past two decades. With his early turn as a young drag queen in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” to his indelible breakout roles in 1997’s “L.A. Confidential” and 2001’s “Memento,” Pearce seemed to be near the front of a pack of Aussie-bred actors — including Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and Naomi Watts — taking Hollywood by storm.

Then he suffered 2002’s dual flops “The Time Machine” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” and retreated to a string of obscure small movies. He recently reemerged with pivotal supporting roles in two Best Picture Oscar winners — “The Hurt Locker” and “The King’s Speech” — and nabbed an Emmy for the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce.”

If this seems like a lot of information about Pearce, and almost none about his latest movie — “Lockout” — it’s because it turns out the only reason to bother discussing the derivative, chintzy “Lockout” is Pearce.

“Lockout” aims to do for Pearce what “Taken” did for Liam Neeson: help audiences see him in a whole new leading man light. It’s not a coincidence both of these films were conceived and produced by Luc Besson. (Besson now nurtures young aspiring action filmmakers while squandering his own skills as a genre filmmaker on self-righteous duds like “The Lady” — opening in limited release in the U.S. the same weekend “Lockout” opens wide.)

And just like “Taken,” “Lockout” pretty much flaunts its simplicity and unoriginality as a badge of honor. As if that’s not enough, they also both feature Maggie Grace as the damsel in distress (though “Lockout” casts her as the feisty love interest instead of the shell-shocked daddy’s little girl). But as patently ridiculous as “Taken” was, it also told a story perfectly suited to an elemental, no-frills approach. “Lockout,” with its on-the-cheap special effects and childish stabs at futuristic worldbuilding, needs to be far more ambitious to even come close to working.

Directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger are a pair of Irishmen who met at film school in Dublin and directed numerous commercials and short films together. They love green screen and special effects. And they perfectly channel the visual experience of playing a poorly designed video game where cut scenes move so quickly you have no idea what you just saw other than a lot of explosions and frantic action.

They also wrote the script with Besson. A process which must have consisted of throwing “Escape from New York,” “Die Hard,” “Romancing the Stone,” “The Fifth Element” and all of their rip-offs into a blender and hitting “pulverize” until all traces of taste and texture were removed. The villains are a couple of boring oafs (Vincent Regan, Joseph Gilgun) as forgettable as Pearce’s fellow agents (Peter Stormare, Lennie James), and the outer space prison holds no cool surprises in either production design or narrative function.

With “The Hunger Games” providing audiences thoughtful, immersive sci-fi storytelling and “The Raid: Redemption” offering a kinetic adrenaline rush, “Lockout” isn’t even catering to an underserved niche.

So we’re back to Pearce, who threatens to make things interesting with his very presence. He bulked himself up for the role — supposedly packing on 50 pounds of muscle in a throwback to his days as a teenage bodybuilder — and relishes every last syllable of his sarcastic macho man dialogue. But the material is executed so far beneath his skill level that instead of enjoying his efforts, we can’t help but wonder why he’s wasting his time. And ours.

“Lockout” opens in theaters April 13