“Penitentiary 3” is one of the most bizarre and jaded pieces of cinema to be released by Cannon Film Distributors, which is not an easy feat considering the schlock that the company released in the ‘80s. However, this film about the horrors of prison boxing slowly becomes stranger by the minute, trading in logic for a plot about a killer midget. It is also a departure from the earlier “Penitentiary” films because of the almost comedic tone set by this picture. You also can’t help but wonder if that comedic tone is set on purpose or if the movie is hysterically bad, but either way, the film is bold and original, giving the audience entertainment in something never seen before.
Too Sweet (Leon Isaac Kennedy) has no luck in life since this is the third time he is being sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. During his boxing match, his water was laced with a new drug that led him to go ballistic in the ring, killing his opponent. The reason he was drugged was so that he could join the prison boxing team and settle a grudge match between the prison guards and the head of the mafia. Too Sweet feels that because he killed a man in the ring, he must hang up his gloves permanently.
On the surface, there is nothing that farfetched about this common exploitation scenario, except that there is a killer midget on the loose. When you go against the head of the mafia in prison, he gets his revenge by allowing the guards to throw a deranged, drugged-up midget into the cell at midnight. Early shots of this are set up as we see prisoners scream in horror at the sight of something we are unable to see, and all we hear about is the horrors of Midnight Thud Jessup. When we eventually see Jessup, he is played with campy delight by the wrestler the Haiti Kid. This concept is a real stretch of the imagination, leaving you to wonder about the sanity of the director.
Soon, Too Sweet discovers that Jessup was tortured and starved in order to make him angry, and the two men slowly start to bond. At this point, you can’t help but become painfully aware that you have no clue where this raunchy, violent picture is headed, but you allow yourself to go with the flow.
Jamaa Fanaka’s movies all suffer from the same tonal problems as this picture. They often start out with a clear statement on black culture, and then become bogged down with the excesses of the exploitation genre, which is why they are such a mess. If you look at one of his earlier pictures, “Welcome Home Brother Charles,” you can see the tale of a young man fresh out of prison trying to start his life over, but the corrupt cops won’t let him. That interesting low-budget premise is completely destroyed by a stupid supernatural concept of a killer sexual organ. His films start off smart, but slowly descend into mind-numbing stupidity, and “Penitentiary 3” is no different.
It is also worth mentioning that in 1987, the “Penitentiary” series had more than worn out its welcome. Kennedy no longer had the screen presence or promise that was exhibited in earlier pictures such as “Body and Soul.” He also didn’t seem as serious an actor as he did in his better films, and that left the picture feeling like something he just did for the paycheck.
Fanaka and Kennedy are lucky that despite itself, the film is entertaining in its own bizarre way, otherwise it would be all but forgotten by now.
Not even the help of a dependable supporting cast helps, because the actors are severely miscast. For starters, the saxophone-playing boxer Roscoe is played by Steve Antin, who is probably best known for playing Troy in “The Goonies.” There doesn’t seem to be anything tough to this character, and if he was in the ring, would anyone really be worried? Also, in the beginning, when he is being transferred to the prison, he is seen playing his saxophone, which one would assume the cops would’ve confiscated prior to putting him on the bus.
The next bit of bad casting is Anthony Geary as the head of the mafia, who wisely kept his day job on “General Hospital.” He plays the role with a little more camp than he does during the daytime, which proves nobody in this movie knew what they were doing.
An interesting side note on this authentic Deuce classic: In the picture “Riot on 42nd Street,” which was filmed in the heyday of cinematic sleaze in Times Square, a camera pans past a theater whose marquee reads “Penitentiary 3.”
“Penitentiary 3” is an excursion into a world that seems to make no sense whatsoever, and somehow manages to become noteworthy for being three things: Incredibly stupid, bold and original. This proves we no longer just need original movies, but we also need them to be intelligent.