Plot: Martel Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy) is in the middle of a world where brutality and animalistic nature is the norm. Human life doesn’t mean that much in this place and neither do personal rights or much of anything else, to be truthful. Gordone is a prisoner in a harsh penitentiary where there is little space to breath and even few ways to survive until your sentence has been served. He was placed here after a fight with some bikers turned lethal and one of them was left dead. This lands him where he is now and he has picked up the nickname Too Sweet, because of his love for candy bars. The prison is brutal and tough, but soon Too Sweet becomes harder and is able to make it through each day. In an effort to secure an early parole he joins the prison boxing team, which means he can get out of here by doing the same thing he was put in for. With several other boxers in line for the same prize the road won’t be easy for Too Sweet, but his desire for freedom just might be enough to push him to victory.
Entertainment Value: Penitentiary is a remarkable slice of blaxploitation cinema, a low budget, raw movie that delivers a tense, authentic atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re locked inside the prison. The movie has a serious tone overall, but it does have a sense of humor and some camp elements, but that is to be expected given the budget and inexperienced actors. The humor is character driven for the most part, so it feels natural and effective, not forced in the least. I think the bursts of humor play an important role here as well, as the film’s tense mood benefits from the steam released in those moments and that is much needed at times. I have an appreciation for prison cinema and I think Penitentiary more than holds its own in the genre, with a strong narrative and raw, powerful atmosphere. This rarely comes across like actors on a set, but colorful, dangerous men locked in close quarters with ever increasing tensions, so it captures the prison environment quite well. Leon Isaac Kennedy is rock solid in the lead and while most of the performances aren’t polished, that serves the movie and helps that genuine texture develop. This is a great example of how the rough edges of a low budget shoot can enhance a movie’s impact, as Penitentiary delivers a prison experience few films could come close to. I think anyone with an interest in prison cinema, blaxploitation, or exploitation should give Penitentiary a look.
This one has a few topless scenes and one bare ass, with a highlight being some of the most awkward nipple licks you’ll see in cinema. The lack of female nudity is no shock, given the men’s prison setting and while there is rape and sexual dynamics at work, no male nakedness is on showcase. This isn’t as violent as some prison movies, but we do have some shanks in play and of course, fights break out often. The level of bloodshed is minimal and while the brawls have a wild, raw texture, there’s not much in terms of damage outside of some light red stuff. I think the fights feel more real because of how raw and out of control they feel, but I know some prefer a tighter, more choreographed approach. The dialogue has a lot of tough guy talk of course, as well as some colorful lines from the more manic prisoners to spice things up. But the real highlight is when everyone mispronounces the word conjugal, as it is such an odd way to say the word and keeps popping up after it first happens. As for craziness, Penitentiary has some colorful characters and offbeat moments, but holds up as a mostly serious movie, so the insanity isn’t that high.
Overall Insanity: 3/10