ESCAPE PLAN

THE TOMB

By R. David

Say this for “Escape Plan”, it’s certainly efficient.  The movie barrels through its plot points like a convict tunneling out of the joint. This isn’t a bad thing per se.  “Escape Plan’s” plot is hardly worth lengthy exposition, and you want an action flick to be fast-paced, but “Escape Plan” never gives its story room to breathe.  A character mentions something they have to do in order to escape, and instead of the film building suspense around how this will all play out, the character is simply off and putting the plan in motion.  It either works or it doesn’t and then we’re just as quickly on to the next story beat.  The film never takes the time to hold you in suspense or challenge expectations.  This type of movie is most fun when a character spends a lot of time on an ingenious but highly unstable plan only to see it revealed, fail, or discover traitors amongst him.  How these films navigate the character out of these roadblocks is often their most entertaining and exciting aspect.  But “Escape Plan” is too busy to waste time on clever ideas or ratcheting up suspense.

Of course, there are far worse offenses when it comes to movies of this sort.  The Action Heroes of Yesterday/’80s Throwback flick has become something of cottage industry in Hollywood as of late, and like the films they are paying homage too, many of them suffer from poor acting, dialog and lazy plotting – as if their winking nostalgia is enough to justify the film’s existence all by itself. “Escape Plan” is not nearly as lazily barebones as its co-stars’ solo entries in this genre from earlier this year – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Stand” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Bullet to the Head”, movies that aren’t too bad from an action standpoint but really have nothing to offer beyond the joy of watching our aging heroes shoot people in the face – but it feels like a missed opportunity to concoct an idea that has the potential to be relatively high-concept in execution and then never bother to explore or take advantage of all suspense and twists that could have been mined from it.

“Escape Plan” stars Sylvester Stallone as Ray Breslin, the guy who – literally – wrote the book on breaking out of prison.  He is so good at it that he has made a fortune trading months of his life at time, going undercover for the Federal Bureau of Prisons infiltrating and breaking out of maximum security prisons.  He receives a lucrative but shady-sounding offer from the CIA to employ his skills testing the security of The Tomb (“Escape Plan’s” original – and better, IMO – title), a high-tech, top-secret facility that supposedly houses the worst of the worst international criminals who have been placed there without trial or anyone’s knowledge (you think the writers might mean to remind us of Guantanamo Bay at all?).  Breslin and his team – made up of Vincent D’’Onofrio as his business partner, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as his expert hacker, and Amy Ryan as, I guess, his consigliere and quasi romantic interest (she’s basically there to be the voice of reason, worry about the hero, and give him someone to bounce silly jokes off of) – are not allowed to know the prison’s whereabouts, tell anyone else about the job or keep tabs on Breslin the way they normally would with tracking devices and prison liaisons.  They smell a rat, but Breslin accepts the job anyway.  Because of course he does.

Breslin’s fears are realized immediately when he is kidnapped, drugged and beaten.  He awakens in The Tomb – which looks like something out Sly’s “Demolition Man” cryo-prison in design, except instead of frozen cubes, the inmates are stacked in vertical glass cells, while guards in black masks and assault weapons roam the many catwalks.  Breslin tries to call the whole deal off but the warden (Jim Caviezel, who somehow manages to chew scenery even though he’s playing one of these eerily calm and quietly menacing types) informs him there’s no safe word, no off switch, and he’s there to stay.  Thus, Breslin has to break out of prison for real, or be trapped in The Tomb forever.  Enter Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a life-long convict who is curious about Breslin’s perceptive eye and eager to befriend him.  Brerslin begrudgingly forms an alliance with Rottmayer, promising to free the both of them if Rottmayer helps him with his plan.

Sylvester-Stallone-in-Escape-Plan-2013-Movie-Image-aa29df74a28f6c8c

Despite the silliness of this all, “Escape Plan’s” plot is not a bad idea for a movie.  Stallone has worked this material before (“Tango & Cash”, “Lock-Up”), but “Escape Plan” is at least blessedly free of the self-consciousness that has diluted his recent films.  “Escape Plan” plays things relatively straight; as such it actually feels like a movie that both of stars might have made in 1986 – or even 1996 – rather than one simply goofing on that era.  Generally I’m a bigger Stallone fan – and he acquits himself nicely here (he’s as taciturn and somber as ever, but it works for him and the film, as it generally does) – but its Schwarzenegger who seems to be having the most fun. In fact, he hasn’t been this laid-back and animated in decades, if ever.  Arnie seems to relish his role here, which has him pissing off the warden and other inmates, giving him a chance to wig-out for distracting effect (in his native language no less!), and to generally play something of a mischief maker. He looks good here too; salt and peppery with a goatee, but still carrying the frame of a man-truck.  Sly is no slouch either, aging gracefully by any measure and more physically fit than most men half his age.

Unlike in “The Expendables” films, neither star simply trades on their famous screen persona or the stunt-casting factor of having STALLONE AND SCHWARZENEGGER FINALLY TEAMING UP IN THE SAME MOVIE BRWAAAARRRR!!! 20 or 30 years ago this would have been a major coup, but they are unfortunately a generation too late for the novelty of their pairing to by itself anchor a movie.  Smartly, “Escape Plan” isn’t built around references, call-backs and in-jokes to their heyday, and it’s a much more effective throwback for its straightforwardness.

There is a trade-off there, however.  “The Expendables” films (and to a similar extent, Sly’s “Bullet to the Head”) might have been jumbled, messy and nothing more than an excuse to unite famous faces, but they benefited from a certain giddy, ridiculous energy.  Once you disarm the audience of any expectations in terms of plotting, it becomes real easy to simply sit back and enjoy the fireworks.  “Escape Plan” tries to be more plot driven (there’s even a twist of sorts at the end) but it’s all in service of a film that quite frankly, could use less ambition in terms of its plotting and more where its suspenseful elements and action sequences are concerned.  Director Mikael Håfström (“The Rite”) doesn’t have much of an eye for stylish action sequences; and while he keeps the film chugging along with workman-like efficiency, he either misses or ignores every opportunity to wring suspense from the classic prison break beats, never mind improve or up the ante on them (the best way to sum up “Escape Plan” is “like a feature-length remake of the prison scene in “Face/Off”).

There is also a good amount in the script that will cause a few arched eyebrows.  For instance:  Breslin says at the beginning of the film that one of the key ingredients for any successful prison escape is to make friends on the inside.  Why then is he such a dick to Schwarzenegger’s character, who practically has to beg Breslin to befriend him?  Also, the inmates here are supposed to be among the most dangerous human beings on the planet, yet the film does nothing to show us this is the case.  Either that’s some genius political commentary on the prison system or nobody bothered to write any scenes backing up what the script simply tells us.

“Escape Plan” is enjoyable enough, but it’s also good enough to make you wish it were better.  The teaming of Sly and Arnie is plenty fun, but the film doesn’t give them the material – neither dialog or action sequences – to make it the match-up fans have long dreamed of (again though, that time has probably passed).  There’s cheesy fun to be had here, but with a little more effort, “Escape Plan” could have been a legitimately good movie rather than a guilty pleasure.

2½ stars out of 4

(Images Courtesy Summit Entertainment)

AN OPEN LETTER TO SYLVESTER STALLONE AND BRUCE WILLIS

Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis

“An Open Letter To Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis”

August 7, 2013

Dear Mr. Stallone and Mr. Willis,

Speaking on behalf of millions of Americans, I am writing to let you know just how troubling I (we) found today’s news of a growing rift between the two of you which has resulted in Mr. Willis dropping out of “The Expendables 3″.

Gentlemen, this is no good.

Two of America’s few remaining legitimate action heroes – nay, ICONS – should not be feuding at a time when the action movie landscape is so bleak.  Today’s kids are being brought up to believe that the term “action movie” means a bunch CGI robots and “action hero” means Shia LaBouf running around screaming like a little girl.  It’s a shitshow out here, fellas.  We need you.

I know.  Business and money and egos are important.  Really, I understand.  Movies are a business, your careers and images are a business, and when two people don’t see eye to eye on what is best or fair in a business relationship shit gets sticky.  I get it.  As much as we true believers like to romanticize movies as purely an art form – a means of escape and place where dreams can come true – I understand that at the end of the day getting a movie made boils down to lots of complicated decisions and negotiations.  It’s hard to imagine now, but there was I time – when I was kid – where my friends and I would all sit around and say things like, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger where in the SAME MOVIE?!”, or, “Who would win in a fight:  Stallone or Schwarzenegger?”  Adults would always inform me that it would never happen because it would be too expensive, or the stars’ egos would clash, or neither one would want to be the loser, etc.

Well, it might have taken a while, but thanks to “The Expendables” franchise, all of us ’70s and ’80s kids finally got to see that cinematic dream come true.  And I thank you for finally making it happen, Mr. Stallone – sincerely and wholeheartedly.  But you didn’t just stop there.  Oh no.  You brought along Mr. Yippi-Ki-Yay himself.  If there was ever a crazier dream for young action movie fans in the 1980s than putting Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the same movie, it was adding Bruce Fucking Willis too.  Two big-time action movie stars in one movie was too much for anyone to realistically hope for; three was something only crackheads and SNL writers could envision.

I hope you both will indulge me in a girly little story here for a moment:  When I was in 8th grade, circa 1993, I had to design a poster for an art class.  I chose to design a movie poster.  All I did was write the names of all my favorite action heroes in big, black magic marker, and then slap a title and a tagline at the bottom (Title: “No Man’s Land”.  Tagline:  “Don’t Cross”.  Rated R.).  My homemade one-sheet looked something like this:

CLINT EASTWOOD

SYLVESTER STALLONE

MEL GIBSON

BRUCE WILLIS

STEVEN SEAGAL

WESLEY SNIPES

and   ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

a RICHARD DONNER film

I scribbled the title of my fantasy movie on there in a smaller font than any of the names, almost like it was an afterthought (because it was).  I just wanted to see all those names I so adored come together on the same movie poster, even if it was one I was making myself at my kitchen table.  The fact that I would be handing it in to be graded somehow made it seem less like a fantasy and more like something that might actually happen.  And be honest, guys; you’d go see that fucking movie!  You wouldn’t even have to look past those names for a title.  Nope.  Doesn’t matter.  What’s it about?  Shut the fuck up, that’s what.  It’s about Eastwood, Stallone, Gibson, Willis, Seagal, Snipes and Schwarzenegger IN THE SAME MOVIE!!!  BOOM!  No explanation necessary.

I don’t remember the grade I ended up with for that assignment, not that it mattered.  I made that thing for me, not for some silly grade.  So imagine how excited I was – and how brilliantly prophetic I felt – when I saw the first poster for the original “Expendables”.  What did it look like?  That’s right, a long list of names with the title squeezed in at the bottom!  Wow.  Just wow.  Great minds, Stallone.  Great minds.

The Expendables poster

So, now I’m 34 and it only took a little over the same number of years later from the age I was when I made that poster (got that?) to see my dream (basically) realized.  Now I know what you’re thinking:  “34?  Pfft.  I’m not making movies to please 34 year-olds.  I’m done reading this.”  I can totally relate.  It’s like when I try to reminisce about the cool shit I grew up with like Rambo and He-Man and “Predator” and “Born In the USA” and “Die Hard” and “Purple Rain” and “The A-Team” and “Lethal Weapon” with some Millennial kid and they have no idea what I’m talking about – but The Spice Girls, “Titanic”, Pokemon, and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” were, “like, totally the shit, bro”…  God, these kids today are the fucking worst, you guys.  To be clear though, fellas; I’m not just sitting here saying, “Yeah, I love Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis!  Rambo and “Die Hard” 4EVA!!!!”  Oh no.

Sly.  Can I call you Sly?  Thanks.  The Rambo movies aren’t even close to my favorite of your films.  “Rocky” either.  I love ‘em – naturally – but I’m not one of these dumbasses who say stupid shit like, “Well “Rocky” and Rambo were good, but that’s it”.  Nope.  Are you aware that I love “Oscar”?  (Of course you’re not – how could you be?  Stupid question – but now you know.)  And I don’t mean in some sort of guilty-pleasure or ironic sort of way.  No.  I fucking love “Oscar”.  You’re amazing in that movie.  Go watch yourself it that movie right now.  Go on.  I’ll wait.  See?  You’re hilarious in that!  A comic genius.  I’m not kissing your ass; I actually believe that.  Anyone being honest with themselves and not all, “Stallone can’t act” and “What’s an action guy doing staring in a comedy”, knows this.  What’s Stallone doing in a comedy?  Fucking WINNING, that’s what.  “Rhinestone” was kind of a piece of shit, but I can watch you sing “Drinkenstein” for hours!  “Demolition Man”?  Epic.  “Cliffhanger”?  Epic.  “Tango & Cash”?  Epic.  Remember “Assassins”?  Sly, I fucking remember “Assassins”.  I watch that gem all the time.  I thought “Cop Land” was the best movie of 1997.  Fuck “Titanic”.  It was “Cop Land”.  And I have gone to the mat several times in defense of “Get Carter” which, if nothing else, has one of the best movie posters ever.  I’ve had that thing on my wall for 13 years now – through college, girlfriends, marriage and kids – “Get Carter” saw it all.

And Bruno.  Can I call you Bruno? Oh, sorry.  Look man, I know it sounds like I’m really just jerking Sly off here and you’re probably thinking, “What does this have to do with me?”  Just between you and me, bud (and Sly and everyone reading this, I guess), you are one of the most consistently great actors around.  People, I’m not just trying to butter Bruce up here.  I mean that.  I’m not necessarily talking about ‘great’ in an Oscar-winning sense (though I can think of plenty of movies where you should have had them hurled at you), but great in that you never, EVER let me down with a performance.  The only way I can properly explain this is to compare you to Clint Eastwood.  Clint is always Clint, but he’s always perfect.  That’s you, Bruce.  You get most of your kudos for “Die Hard”, “Pulp Fiction”, and “The Sixth Sense”; and deservedly so.  “Die Hard” is maybe the best pure action movie all time.  But you know what else is fucking amazing?  “Hudson Hawk”.  Look at me, Bruce.  I’m saying that shit with a straight face.  That movie is so insanely infectious that I just feel sorry for people who don’t like it.  They must just hate joy or something.  I don’t know how much fun you were having making that movie, but from the looks of things, it was a lot.  That movie is insane.  How about “The Last Boy Scout”?  The only thing that big tumor of awesome cancer is lacking is a sequel.  Why was there no sequel, Bruce?  I really want to know.  “Unbreakable”?  You should make more movies with M. Night Shyamalan; that guy could use the help.  Remember when you were a bunny in that fucking “North” movie?  Let’s put it this way, Champ; thank God you were a bunny in that fucking “North” movie.  Also, I’ve seen “Striking Distance” more times than probably anybody on the face of this planet simply because it came out when I was about 14, you were in it and you had a gun.  That’s all it takes, Bruce.  Still.

I’m just scratching the tip of the iceberg here with both of your filmographies.  I could go on all night.  The point is, I love you guys.  Not just as some sort of fair-weather fan or when I need a nostalgia trip, but still.  I’ll see any movie either of you make, and await their releases impatiently.  Bruce, you working with directors like Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino has been one of the joys of my movie-going life.  And Sly, you directing again has resulted in a couple of my favorite movies of the last half decade or so (“Rambo” and “Rocky Balboa” were both such perfect epilogs for those characters).

Guys, the bottom line here is we can’t have you fighting.  Jesus Christ Almighty, we can’t.  The world can’t bear it.  We’re already at a point where people are actually considering Channing Tatum as an action star.  Channing fucking Tatum!  Bruce, I remember when “Live Free or Die Hard” was set to come out and you implored everyone to have faith; that you wouldn’t let them tarnish the reputation of John McClane with a subpar entry in the series.  And you were right.  That movie was great (especially the unrated version which should have been the theatrical cut, but we don’t have to get into all that again – although a blu-ray release of that version would be nice already…).  You obviously care (so I’ll give you mulligan for “A Good Day To Die Hard” and assume the studio fucked it all up in post).  Sly just wants to deliver the best movie possible for fans like me.  And not just the best movie, but the best package possible.  That means you, and Arnold, and Seagal, and Cage, and Gibson, and (please, God) Eastwood, and whomever else he can enlist to keep making the dreams of my (and my generation’s) youth come true.  You have to be in it, Bruce.  You just have to.  Forget money.  This isn’t about money.  These dumbass Millennial kids need to see what real action heros look like, not some flavor-of-the-day jackass poppin’ and lockin’ on the hood of a car in one movie and shooting a gun in the next.

I’m not going to pick sides, or say who is worth what amount of money, or what amount of money is unreasonable.  That’s not my place as a fan – frankly, it’s for you guys to figure out.  But please, do figure it out.  This shit is like “Alien VS Predator”, guys:  Whoever Wins, We All Lose.  So please – for the kid who made the original “Expendables” poster at his kitchen table nearly 20 years ago – be men, and kiss and make up.

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Love,

Ron