It’s fair to say that Escape Plan is Sylvester Stallone’s most coherent, most consistent, and most enjoyable action film in years. Of course, that’s not saying a great deal. The differences here: the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a full lead role, as opposed to his cameos in Stallone’s Expendables films, and Stallone himself not handling writing or directing duties. The film is still heavy-handed and silly, and will stretch all but the most diehard of Stallone fans’ abilities to suspend their disbelief, but at least the film flows somewhat logically and has some genuinely fun moments.
Ray Breslin (Stallone) is a guy with a very unusual skill set. He can find the security weakness in any prison or structure built for the purpose of detention and escape from it, given time and a little help from the outside. Ray has utilized these skills for over a decade to run a consulting firm along with his business partner, Lester (Vincent D’Onofrio) and two trusted associates, Abigail (Amy Ryan) and Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). Together, the group reports to the Department of Justice on the security of their prisons after Ray spends a little quality time in each one. Ray’s never met a prison he couldn’t sneak out of — he’s so good, in fact, that he’s written and published a book on structural security. But, of course, he’s about to meet his match.
When a CIA lawyer (Caitriona Balfe) offers a very lucrative contract in exchange for Ray to test a unique privately-run holding facility for people the U.S. government wants to hold in secret without the benefit of due process, Ray reluctantly agrees over the objections of his team. He’s given the name of the warden and an evacuation code, in case something goes wrong, and then none too gently taken into custody and placed in “The Tomb”, a prison he very quickly realizes was built using the principles he himself wrote about in his book. He also very quickly discovers that the name of the warden he was given was bogus, his evacuation code is meaningless, and he’s now stuck in the hands of the soft-spoken, immaculately-dressed, and effortlessly menacing Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), who takes a serene pleasure in locking away the most dangerous people in the world and treating them the way he feels they deserve.
Though he’s cut off from Abigail and Hush, Ray’s not alone. Enter Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), a fellow prisoner who takes an interest in Ray’s vigilant observation of his surroundings and suddenly becomes the new prisoner’s best friend. Faced with the efforts of Hobbes and his chief thug, Drake (Vinnie Jones) to break their determination to find an escape, Ray must put aside his natural suspicion of Rottmayer and his motives and work with his new buddy to figure out where in the world they are and how to get out.
Swedish director Mikael Håfstrӧm (The Rite, 1408), working with first-time screenwriters Miles Chapman and Jason Keller, tries to freshen up the prison movie genre with the interesting idea of trapping an expert on prisons within the “ultimate” prison, and what they present visually to the character and the audience is, admittedly, impressive. Faceless guards protected by masks, glass box cells disconnected from one another, no access to the outside world, no way for prisoners to have any sense of where they are and knowing that no one on the outside knows where they are – it’s all very intimidating and credible, especially in our post-911 world of government-sanctioned places like Guantanamo Bay. The problem with Escape Plan isn’t the setting — that part’s interesting.
The problem is everything else. Because this is an action yarn, character development is nowhere to be found, and very little effort is placed into making Ray’s plight truly terrifying in any way. Stallone’s done the whole incarcerated character thing before (three other times, in fact: Rambo: First Blood, Part II, Tango and Cash, and Lock-Up), and at least in two of those three films an effort was made in the writing and staging of the film to make the torment Stallone’s characters endure within the prison walls compelling, shocking, or otherwise emotionally impactful to the point where we want to see him escape.
Here, because of the nature of the film, we just want to see him and Ah-nold kick butt, and eventually we get around to that. Arnold, in particular, doesn’t disappoint — just as he did earlier this year with The Last Stand, Schwarzenegger shows he has just as much screen appeal when glaring all squinty-eyed at bad guys he’s about to mow down with a ridiculously-large weapon as he’s ever had throughout his career. Håfstrӧm shows he knows both his cast’s appeal and his audience by taking advantage of this appeal at just about every opportunity. You may notice a few more far off camera shots used to disguise Arnold’s body doubles during more difficult physical scenes — he is getting up there in age, you know — but it’s Arnold in the shots that count. You may giggle at those particular moments, but only because they’re fun in that guilty pleasure kind of way.
As for Stallone, he stiffly lumbers in and out of his scenes, looking freshly chiseled out of granite as he has for the last decade or so, and delivers his characteristic yells and grunts as he fights convicts and endures beatings at the hands of the guards for the first hour of the film. With Stallone, Håfstrӧm has a more difficult challenge than he does with Schwarzenegger — he has to use the camera and tight shots of Stallone’s eyes to sell the audience on Ray’s keen powers of observation and brilliance in terms of finding the out where there isn’t supposed to be one. As far as those efforts go, Schwarzenegger as Rottmayer says it all in one line in the film: “You don’t look that smart.” He ain’t kidding.
Aside from suspending disbelief in that regard, there are numerous plot holes and moments where the production didn’t mean for you to laugh, but you will, anyway. Call it all part of the experience of willingly subjecting yourself to this kind of film — either you love it or you don’t. At least the writing here isn’t nearly as unintentionally laughable as it is Stallone’s action scripts — these characters actually utter words and sentences you might hear real people actually speak at one point or another … maybe. Yes, it’s true, one doesn’t typically go to a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger film to enjoy great screenwriting, but it’s still nice to be able to sit through a film without groaning at every stilted, unnatural-sounding brick of dialogue.
One thing that everyone should enjoy, though, is Caviezel chewing scenery as Hobbes. Caviezel doesn’t often play heavies, and here he seems to make the most of the opportunity by playing the merciless warden intent on keeping his charges subjugated and making a lot of money in the process. Sometimes in these films, having a compelling, memorable villain makes all the difference in terms of how enjoyable the film is. Caviezel goes above and beyond in terms of giving filmgoers a memorably hissable baddie, and his work here certainly helps in making the almost two hours that Escape Plan runs bearable.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Sam Neill, Vinnie Jones,
Faran Tahir, with Vincent D’Onofrio and Amy Ryan. Directed by Mikael Håfstrӧm.
Running Time: 116 minutes
Rated R for violence and language throughout.
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