Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 29, 2019)
A character drama related to the criminal justice system, 2019’s Imprisoned introduces us to Dylan Burke (Juan Pablo Raba). When he emerges from incarceration, he attempts to rebuild his life with his wife Maria (Juana Acosta).
Dylan finds this difficult to achieve, partly because prison warden Daniel Calvin (Laurence Fishburne) refuses to forgive him for a prior offense. Related to this grudge, Calvin frames Dylan for something he didn’t do.
This sends Dylan back to prison – and to the facility operated by Calvin. Eventually a riot erupts, and the two men find themselves at a crossroads.
On the Blu-ray art for Imprisoned, it touts the fact that the crew shot the film in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria hit. Indeed, the movie does take place on that island, but this seems like an odd angle in terms of promotion.
The choice becomes an issue for a few reasons. First, it simply seems tacky, as though the producers want to use the natural disaster to sell their movie.
In addition, this reference tells us that Imprisoned sat on the shelf for a long period. Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, so since they shot Imprisoned prior to that disaster, we know the movie remained in limbo for well over two years.
Why call attention to this fact? Perhaps because then thin, trite Imprisoned lacks much else to use as promotion.
At the start, the movie looks like it’ll concentrate on Warden Calvin. The opening scene shows an older Calvin after the riot, as authorities plan to tear down the defunct prison.
From there, we see Calvin’s arrival to the prison and his interactions with Maria. Clearly smitten with the younger woman, she protests for justice and he attempts to use his position to woo her.
Once Calvin learns she’s married to Dylan, his demeanor shifts, though we don’t find out much about that situation for a while. Instead, we then devote more attention to Dylan and Maria in a series of seemingly never-ending scenes related to their life and love.
Since Imprisoned only runs 105 minutes, these sequences don’t literally ramble forever, but it sure feels like they do, mainly because they seem utterly superfluous. We need very little exposition to remind us that Maria and Dylan love each other, so these parts of the flick grind any momentum to a halt.
Once Calvin attempts to frame Dylan, the movie picks up – in theory. However, so much of it feels trite and one-dimensional that the tale never kicks into higher gear.
We get only one character with real potential: Warden Calvin. While it takes a while to get to the truth of his grudge against Dylan, we do see why Calvin hates him, and this contributes potential depth to the role.
However, Imprisoned prefers to treat Calvin as a generic villain, one who lacks any nuance or humanity. It also paints Dylan as a cliché “good man who made a mistake”, a choice that means we never see him as anything other than a total victim.
A better-made movie would strike a balance. We’d see a darker side to Dylan and a more humane angle to Calvin.
Imprisoned isn’t that movie, however, so it bounces from one mediocre, overdone scene to another without drama or depth. It aspires to some form of higher purpose, one that deals with flaws in the criminal justice system, but instead it devotes its time to cheap melodrama.
These choices leave a surprisingly good cast adrift. In addition to Fishburne, we find talents like Edward James Olmos and John Heard.
As noted, Fishburne almost manages to find a pulse in his performance, but he can’t overcome the restricted, hackneyed nature of the character as written. The others get too little to do to add much to the equation.
Somewhere buried beneath the rubble, Imprisoned boasts a beating heart. However, it embraces so many clichés that it never turns into anything other than a muddled mess.