Monday, March 9

Penitentiary (1979)

Directed by Jamaa Fanaka
99 Minutes / Wizard Video / Cropped from 1.85:1 to full screen

A wrongfully accused man (Too Sweet, Leon Isaac Kennedy) is thrown into the lion's den of malicious nicknamed convicts within a gritty penitentiary. With the constant threat of beatings and rape; the proud young man resorts to his skillful fighting to prove himself. This catches the attention of the Lieutenant who presents the scrapper with the idea of entering the prison's boxing tournament. Reluctantly, Too Sweet agrees after hearing of a chance of early parole and moves into the cell of a weary old trainer. After rising through the ranks to the acclaim of his fellow prisoners, a longstanding feud comes back to sucker punch the champ at his height. Too Sweet now sees the only way to finally settle it is in the ring.

This film's subtitle should be "Penitentiary - Prison? Besides the Point". I'm not up on late '70s day-to-day prison policy, but the portrayal of lock-up we see here seems a bit too lax. Prisoners freely roam the halls out side their cells nearly all times of the day. There's a live band and guards leisurely stretching in the yard. The boxing matches are a crazed free-for-all and even women prisoners get to watch with the men. The warden and guards are like annoyed night janitors dealing with horny teenagers in their treatment of the internees. Not to mention no badges ever showing up when screamin' mad violence erupts within the block.

Yet that doesn't diminish the impact of the crowd-pleasing manic energy the film throws out. It's all designed to entertain based solely on the spectacle of it all. From the sweaty brawls, raunchy bathroom sex, and metric ton crossdresser who screams like a banshee at the matches. Surprisingly and much to the spirited cast's credit, there are several scenes that are truly believably emotional in their delivery. Though the endearingly stupid package these qualities are coated in fatally hinders the film's realistic credibility. Check it out and remember--keep your ass clean. Also there's no better way to experience it than Wizard's grotty and now twenty-seven year old tape that looks like it's been through a few rounds itself to get to me!

Film: 6.5/10
VHS Picture: 6/10
VHS Sound: 7/10

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