by Matt Levine
As someone who only half-guiltily admits my love for True Lies and Demolition Man, I will say that the prospect of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger breaking out of maximum-security prison seemed promising, especially as Escape Plan seemed devoid of the belabored old-man jokes of Grudge Match or The Expendables. Thankfully, it is, but it’s also tiresome in its own straight-faced way—a disappointing collaboration between two titanic action stars of the 1990s (the very years in which my preteen angst and my infatuation with movies coalesced awkwardly). Stallone and Schwarzenegger have batted around the idea of sharing top billing since the 1980s, they say; yet if that's the case, why does their long-awaited matchup seem so rushed and generic?
Director: Mikael Håfström
Producers: Robbie Brenner, Mark Canton, Remington Chase, Randall Emmett
Writers: Miles Chapman, Arnell Jesko
Cinematographer: Brendan Galvin
Editor: Elliot Greenberg
Music: Alex Heffes
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Matt Gerald, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Caitriona Balfe
US Theatrical Release: October 18, 2013
US Distributor: Lionsgate
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a former prosecutor who works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons; he intentionally works his way into maximum-security prisons in order to test if they’re “escape proof.” On fourteen of his efforts over the course of eight years, he’s made his way out. (In case you’re wondering, he is referred to as Houdini at one point.) Breslin operates with the aid of a rather absurd ability to deconstruct architecture with his eyes (which the audience is allowed to witness in the form of computer-animated blueprints) and with two assistants, Abigail (Amy Ryan) and Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who seems to have given up on his music career by this point). Abigail provides a meek quasi-love interest for Ray, as well as fodder for a few spectacularly unfunny jokes about bad cooking; Hush is uncomfortably referred to as a “techno-thug” and doesn’t provide much at all (one of several extraneous characters that help explain how Escape Plan was padded up to a 115-minute running time).
Ray’s latest job offer seems like something else entirely: a $5 million offer to be shipped off to the most secure prison in the world, an impregnable exile for humanity’s most unwanted, with no knowledge of the location or outside contact with his associates. Ray accepts, of course—out of ambition and greed, says one character—yet only shortly after accepting, he’s kidnapped, drugged, and flown out of the country. He wakes up in a prison that appears to have been designed by M.C. Escher and furnished by IKEA: each prisoner is kept in a transparent glass cage, stairways jut diagonally offscreen, and the guards wear eerie black masks that might have been seen in Eyes Wide Shut. There is, of course, an evil warden, Hobbes (Jim Caviezel, who has relished playing villains since he personified Jesus for Mel Gibson); oozing the effete arrogance so common to generic action villains, he can be seen at one point ludicrously stroking one of his minion’s heads. Ray’s only hope of escaping his cruelly ironic purgatory is to team up with Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), a German prisoner who, at one point, shrieks out a philosophical diatribe in his native tongue (actually lifted from Nietzsche), and who takes to befriending Ray like a schoolboy on the playground.
Escape Plan is actually better than it might sound—or, at least, it’s reliable in exactly the way we expect it to be. The film diligently connects the dots of brawny action movies with rugged yet wounded heroes and sadistic supervillains, from the sympathetic prison doctor to the method of destruction that eventually eviscerates this prison. There’s not much room for stylistic innovation—the cinematography, editing, and set design are all subordinate to brisk, aggressive storytelling—but the film is solidly made, utilizing a slow-moving camera, chilly color palette, and a manipulation of depth and focus to constantly distort the space. True, for each impressive stylistic achievement, there’s an off-putting mistake: the cheap looking wipes that serve as transitions between scenes (I was eagerly awaiting the star wipe, to no avail), or the musical score that might be at home on a CSI spinoff. The movie constantly treads the balance between smart and insipid, but at least at times the ratio tips in favor of the former.
Surprisingly, it’s Stallone’s natural (if crude) charisma that carries the film: at nearly 70, his gravelly mumbles and hulking physique remain singular, and at times even compelling. Like John Wayne or Lee Marvin (yet of a lower caliber, perhaps), he’s the kind of movie star who exists rather than acts; his star persona may be fixed, but there’s something sympathetic about it. Schwarzenegger’s goofy performance (which perpetually seems on the verge of comic relief) undermines the movie’s gritted-teeth-and-clenched-fist vibe, but that’s probably a good thing; say what you will about the former governor’s acting chops, he’s obviously having a good time. Though Escape Plan doesn’t live up to the co-stars’ long-awaited (in some circles) partnership, it is their churlish, good-natured chemistry that ensures the film remains entertaining.
There is almost a built-in subtext to prison-escape stories: the jailer-prisoner relationship, like that between master and slave, acts as a potent allegory for political subjugation or the homogenization of the masses. Escape Plan doesn’t ignore these undercurrents—and with its blatant waterboarding scene, it makes sure the audience doesn’t either—but it’s also not very interested in elaborating on them. One of the film’s most callous villains initially seems like a benign government agent, seemingly reaffirming the already-explicit theme that the jailers can often be more depraved than the jailed; but he exists more as a slimy badguy to reap vengeance against than a symbol of bureaucratic duplicity. Ray’s escape from this abysmal prison could symbolize his dismantling of the prison-industrial system that employs him, but really it’s just an excuse for a trigger-happy Schwarzenegger-Stallone actioner.
But, of course, most people don’t watch Escape Plan for its sociopolitical subtext. The real question is, does it make for exciting escapism? Yes and no: it’s often compelling, and an early escape attempt conducted from within a sweatbox blasted with sweltering lights is extremely well-crafted; but it devolves into macho tedium, especially by the time the third or fourth jailhouse brawl accompanied by virile cheering rolls around. It’s a reflection of Escape Plan’s flaws and pleasures that Schwarzenegger’s farewell one-liner to a recently-dispatched henchman is “Have a lovely day, asshole!”—a quip that’s so lazy it’s almost sublime. (Of course, it pales in comparison to anything he coolly utters in Batman & Robin.) The blueprint of a fun, kinetic action film is here, it’s simply concealed by a festering stratum of cliché. And even if the movie has its moments, it’s worth noting that the prison-escape sequences which comprise only brief segments of plot in Face/Off and Terminator 2 are more engrossing and electrifying than Escape Plan in its entirety.