Escape Plan (United States, 2013)

October 18, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Escape Plan Poster

Escape Plan can best be viewed through glasses with nostalgia-tinted lenses. It's a Valentine to the '80s starring two of the decade's larger-than-life action stars in a plot that would have been at home during the Reagan years. Some thirty years later, Escape Plan looks and feels a little like a dinosaur (not unlike its lead actors) but, as with the once-dominant species, the appeal of this sort of thing lingers. More heist movie than adrenaline-fueled action flick, the film uses the likeability of Stallone and Schwarzenegger as oil to silence the creaky hinges of a laughably implausible narrative and hyper-edited fight scenes.

It's easy to complain that Escape Plan comes to screens three decades too late. Had it been released in the late 1980s or early 1990s, it would likely have been a huge success; in 2013, it may struggle to make a dent in the box office (witness the recent dismal performances of Stallone's Bullet to the Head and Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand). The problem is that this could never have been made when the icons were at their peaks - egos and salary demands would have formulated a toxic brew. So we get this long-awaited pairing (far more satisfactory than the brief team-up in The Expendables 2) when Stallone and Schwarzenegger are past their sell-by dates. This necessitates that the fight scenes be enhanced in the editing room but at least allows them to play off one another with an overt cheesiness that tells us they're in on the joke.

The story is dumb and its execution is silly. Mikael Hafstrom, a Swede who has made a few high-profile English-language films (The Rite and 1408) that failed to impress critics or regular film-goers, comes to this project as a director-for-hire. It's a safe option for him because, if Escape Plan bombs, no one is going to mention his name. He does the best one can expect from a filmmaker trying to coax fights and shoot-outs from two guys closer to 70 than 60. The fisticuffs are hard to follow but Hafstrom gets in all the money shots. The audience attending the promotional screening where I saw this went wild when Scharzenegger hefted a really big gun. Hafstrom tries to pretend his stars are about 40 and, for the most part, it works.

It feels a little pointless to talk about storyline and character development in a production like this. It has none of the latter and little of the former. Then again, the same can be said of such "classic" efforts like Commando and Rambo (First Blood Part 2). Escape Plan is constructed as a series of beats: Stallone and Schwarzenegger meet, they fight each other, they team up and beat the crap out of some bad guys with their fists then shoot at them with their guns, and, in the end, they take down them out (Stallone gets the more important kills but Schwarzenegger has a higher body count). Everything else is largely irrelevant. It's a little like one of those 1970s Marvel/DC superhero mashups.

If there's one thing that gets in the way of the party, it's the screenplay, which takes itself a little too seriously. Oh, there are plenty of one-liners but the movie toils through an interminable two hours to get to the finish line. The biggest pitfall is that we sit through 30 minutes before Arnold makes his first appearance. The first half-hour provides us with backstory on Stallone's Breslin, a professional escape artist who is voluntarily incarcerated in maximum security facilities in order to find their weaknesses. When Breslin is "hired" by the CIA to test a state-of-the-art prison designed for terrorists, he learns too late that he has been set up. In the bowels of "The Tomb," he meets Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) who, in keeping with Arnold's post-Terminator rule never to play a villain, has been wrongfully accused. He's a political prisoner hiding the identity of a modern-day Robin Hood. Warden Hobbes (steely-eyed Jim Caviezel, playing the role as if in need of a rabies inoculation) requires Robin's location and has set upon a course to break Rottmayer to get it. Meanwhile, Sam Neill is wandering around looking lost and wondering what he did to deserve being in this movie. He's a walking plot device who is forgotten as soon as his purpose is fulfilled.

Escape Plan falls into the category of a guilty pleasure for anyone who remembers Stallone and Schwarzenegger with fondness. I suspect the movie will be enjoyed more by older viewers than younger ones. The style of action isn't in keeping with the balls-to-the-wall approach that has become popular in recent years. It's not quite old school but it's close. And the narrative isn't going to draw anyone in (except maybe fans of the equally ludicrous defunct FOX series Prison Break). The heist-inspired elements aren't well thought through and it becomes a question of which is harder to swallow: the mechanics of the story or the idea that a couple of sixtysomethings can kick this much ass.

Escape Plan (United States, 2013)

Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Sam Neill, Amy Ryan
Screenplay: Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko
Cinematography: Brendan Galvin
Music: Alex Heffes
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 2013-10-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1