Penitentiary (Special Edition) (R) product details page

Penitentiary (Special Edition) (R)

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This gritty cult favorite, a major independent hit in 1979, makes up in energy and attitude what it lacks in slickness and believable plotting. The boxing-in-prison premise of Penitentiary requires a major suspension of disbelief for the audience, but viewers who can make that mental leap will be rewarded by an always-interesting effort that fuses elements of gritty reality with surreal set pieces that stick in the memory. Penitentiary's main asset is the personalized touch that writer/director Jamaa Fanaka brings to the film. No matter how odd the plotting becomes, he takes great care to create distinctive, intriguing characters and compellingly dramatic situations that hook the viewer in. He also shows great skill at crafting intense action scenes, the most memorable being Half Dead's fight with Too Sweet in the confines of their cell. The acting is raw but sincere and thus a solid match for the story. Leon Isaac Kennedy fuels Too Sweet with plenty of charisma, Donovan Womack adds a humanizing element of self-doubt to the bullying Jesse, and Badja Djola is positively terrifying as the mindlessly brutal Half Dead. On the downside, some of the story elements are too strange to accept (especially the idea of female prisoners being brought in to watch the fights) and the ending is a little too pat and upbeat to be believed. However, it rises above these problems thanks to the obvious amount of heart that Fanaka pours into the film and his ability to surprise the viewer with offbeat twists. In short, Penitentiary is probably a little too eccentric for the average viewer but has plenty to offer cult movie fanatics and blaxploitation fans. Donald Guarisco, All Movie Guide