A largely Hispanic cast and extensive Puerto Rico locations lend a unique quality to Paul Kampf’s prison drama Imprisoned, starring Laurence Fishburne as a morally corrupt warden. Unfortunately, those elements are the only original aspects of this turgid exercise in prison-movie clichés which doesn’t even manage to be convincing as melodrama. Although certainly well-meaning in its condemnation of capital punishment, the pic is too dully executed to achieve its desired impact.
Sporting a shaved head and goatee, Fishburne plays Daniel Calvin, the retired former warden of the local prison whose life is clearly in emotional and physical shambles. He decides to revisit his former place of employment just before the aged structure is due to be demolished, which prompts him to remember events that took place years earlier (rendered in flashback form).
It was when he was still the prison’s swaggering warden that he first encountered Maria (Juana Acosta), the proprietress of a nearby café. Even though she lectures him on the evils of capital punishment, Daniel is clearly attracted to her, making his interest known in none-too-subtle fashion. But his true motivation for wanting to get close to her is more insidious. We eventually learn that her fisherman husband Dylan (Juan Pablo Raba, The 33 and Netflix’s Narcos) is an ex-con who has turned his life around. Dylan has a history with Daniel, who becomes determined to make sure he’s sent back to prison where he can exact revenge.
The ensuing contrived plot mechanics result in Dylan indeed winding up back behind bars and facing Daniel’s wrath. Cue the inevitable prison riots, spurred in large part by the executions of death-row inmates that happen on a preposterously frequent basis (never mind that Puerto Rico actually abolished the death penalty nearly a century ago). One of the film’s many unintentionally funny sequences is a montage depicting the twitching feet of a series of prisoners getting hanged that comes across like the grisliest Busby Berkeley dance routine ever.
It would be easier to forgive the ham-fisted dialogue and tiresome sermonizing about the evils of capital punishment if the film displayed more narrative momentum. But even though there is no shortage of dramatic events in Kampf’s overly cluttered, sometimes incoherent screenplay, the sluggishly paced proceedings feel more like a miniseries than a feature. It winds up making you long for the brevity and snappiness of 1930’s Warner Brothers prison melodramas.
Fishburne effectively employs his natural gravitas in this rare starring role, but he’s ultimately unable to make his over-the-top character remotely credible. Raba and Acosta deliver solid turns as the beleaguered couple who become victim to the warden’s machinations, but they, too, fall victim to the cliché-ridden script. Among the notable supporting performers in the low-budget indie production are Esai Morales as a sleazy governor, Edward James Olmos as the requisite elderly con who provides wise counsel to the younger inmates and the late John Heard as a sympathetic police chief. (The film represents one of Heard’s last screen appearances, and he sadly doesn’t look at all well.)
Imprisoned, shot in Puerto Rico just before Hurricane Maria decimated the island in 2017, makes effective use of such locations as an old prison and San Juan’s national historical sites El Morro and San Cristobal. Sadly, they’re the most authentic-feeling aspects of the film.
Production companies: Equitas Entertainment Partners, Positive Catalyst, The Pimineta Film Company, Blue Rider Pictures
Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Juan Pablo Raba, Juana Acosta, Esai Morales, Jon Huertas, John Heard, Edward James Olmos
Director-screenwriter: Paul Kampf
Producers: Luiollo Ruiz, Paul Kampf, Holly Levow, Tom Sperry
Executive producers: Walter Josien, Belly Torres
Director of photography: Rene Jung
Production designer: Mayna Magruder
Editor: Andres Ramirez
Composer: Robert Rospide
Costume designer: Ana C. Ramirez Velez
Casting: Carla Hool
Rated R, 104 minutes