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.
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)