Escape Plan, Stallone’s third prison movie (I’m not counting Escape to Victory, but maybe that’s wrong) is also his middling one. On the plus side, it lacks the abject sincerity of Lock Up, but on the minus, it is unable to embrace the unkempt energy of Tango & Cash. As full of illogicality as the formerly titled The Tomb is, it might have passed muster if director Mikael Häfstrom had tightened the pace and sufficiently clarified plot twists that provokes a fair bit of head scratching. The consequence is, it’s left to Sly’s co-star to salvage what he can of the picture in his most enjoyable performance since I can’t remember when (probably in twenty years). It’s just a shame it’s not in service of a better movie.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a guy who spends his working life breaking out of maximum-security prisons and reporting to their administrators on the systemic and procedural flaws. He gets an offer from the CIA (he thinks) to test a top secret, off the books, privately funded facility, which he accepts. Before long he is incarcerated, making pals with Arnie’s Emil Rottmayer and encountering a “good” Muslim Javed (Faran Tahir); Javed is only an opium grower and not one of those nasty extremist types (you see, by employing clichés the makers are making a valuable point about stereotyping!)
The opening sequence incorporates a flashback showing Ray’s escape, which is the kind of thing you hope the movie will excel at (although, I’m not sure how confirmation of the four keys the guards use as the passcode will help Sly; surely than only narrows the number down to thousands of possible combinations?). After all, the point of a good prison escape movie is the slow-burn tension of planning the attempt and the ingenuity with which said attempted is enacted. Disappointingly, when it gets to the stage of trying to get out the makers forsake cunning for running about and shooting things. There’s a nice bit where Arnie begs audience with Warden Hobbes (Caviezel) and it turns out to be ruse to secure a tool Sly needs. But such developments are few and far between. Mostly, plans involve staging a fight.
This is a picture where you’re left wondering why exactly Sly’s business partner (played by Vincent D’Onfrio, so you know he’ll turn out to be a backstabbing bastard from the first moment you clap eyes on him) wants to screw him over. Because the director hasn’t put enough emphasis on his motivation; it’s for the money, it always is, but essentially, he turns out to be a bad guy because he turns out to be a bad guy. It’s the same with the reveal that Arnie was Mannheim all along; I think the idea is that the bad guys want Mannheim’s device, which can bring down the world’s banking system, for their own purposes. Mannheim, because Arnie is playing him, only uses it for some kind of wealth redistribution ends… But didn’t we gather he brought down the Icelandic banking system and “the bank collapse six years ago”?
The problem with a director like Häfstrom, who is technically adept but doesn’t seem able to judge natural rises and falls of pace, is the movie comes out at one pitch. This was a problem with 1408 too; a nice enough idea and sporadically effective, but it went on and on and on without variation. You end up with questions of “Why did such and such do this or that?” but the movie as a whole has failed to invest you with sufficient reason find it important. We’re asked to rely on Arne and Sly being good guys because they always are and D’Onfrio and Jim Caviezel being villains because they don’t really have that leading man thing (even Caviezel’s Jesus has a troubling edge to him).
Do I really buy that no one would realise the prison is out at sea on the grounds of “stabilisers” and being positioned in calm seas? I suppose the writers at least gave a thought to possible objections, but it doesn’t fly. I had that twist spoiled for me, but it’s not as if anyone familiar with Face/Off won’t have seen it before. And it’s not a reveal of the sort that turns everything upside down. The inherent problem with a prison escape movie is setting impossible objectives. There are a few nice touches (the transparent cells, the THX1138-esque guard masks) but it becomes necessary to fall back on old staples (tunnels leading to opportune places) in order to get anywhere. There are some attempts at political commentary, but they feel rather weak. The implicit criticism of extraordinary rendition, the prison being run by “military and Blackwater rejects”, the references to the financial crisis. But it’s never more than window dressing, and as such feels slightly desperate; an attempt to boost credibility by aging superstars who never had any interest in saying anything to start with (and I include Arnie as governator; okay Arnie did come out with stuff about people being weak and needing leading early in his career didn’t he? Does that constitute keen purpose, however objectionable?)
Stallone’s post-Rocky Balboa reinvigoration hasn’t been up to much truth, be told. At least in the early ’90s he was trying different things, albeit with mixed results. And then in the late ’90s he did Cop Land. Since Rocky he’s been coasting on his iconic roles and ’80s nostalgia (The Expendables). He hasn’t essayed a really memorable role, stretched himself or even looked like he was having fun. And Escape Plan is no different. Curiously, he’s looking his age more here than in the likes of Expendables and Bullet to the Head, whereas Arnie, who was really looking his years in both his Expendables cameos and The Last Stand, seems positively reinvigorated, complete with greying locks. Perhaps it’s the beard, perhaps the cinematographer had a beef with Sly. Lucky Amy Ryan gets to play Stallone’s girlfriend. From The Wire to the bird of someone a quarter of a century older than you.
Either way, Arnie’s having enormous fun. He gets all the best lines too, accusing Sly of hitting like a vegetarian, trying to persuade him to lay off the pummelling (“Relax, it’s pretend!”), spinning Hobbes a yarn about wanting to be an artist before displaying the results (“I told you I no talent”) insulting Javed’s mother (“and she could polish a helmet!”) or grabbing hold of a mounted machine gun and opening fire with the uproariously delivered but bargain-basement quip “Have a lovely day, ass-hole!”. And the scene where he gets to mouth off in German is a treat.
As with any Sly movie that isn’t Rocky, Rambo or The Expendables, Escape Plan flopped in the US. In contrast it did reasonably well worldwide, suggesting the duo might not be put out to pasture quite yet. Arnie’s other comeback movies have bombed (to his credit, he seems refreshingly willing to mix up his choices), so it’s as well he has a no doubt CGI-aided Terminator in the offing. Stallone can rely on another Expendables. But whether anyone is interested in either carrying a movie solo any more is debatable. In Arnie’s case it might be a good thing. He’s making interesting choices. Escape Plan may not be a particularly interesting movie as a whole, but it becomes so when the Austrian Oak is in frame.