There’s something simultaneously comforting and disappointing about the current renaissance of the action icons of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Comforting, because even though they’re getting a bit long in the tooth, there’s no denying they still bring a certain swagger and chutzpah to the screen but disappointing because just think of what we could have had instead of “Oscar”, “Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot”, “Junior” or “Jingle All The Way” if they’d made these films earlier in their careers. This isn’t even the first time these two screen icons have been in the same film. They blew that load on a brief cameo in “The Expendables” and then went back for sloppy seconds in “The Expendables 2”. Let’s just agree that that “Escape Plan” marks the first time these two action giants have shared top billing on a movie and that the whole load blowing/ sloppy seconds metaphor was pretty gross.
Like courtrooms, prisons have always been fertile settings for drama and over the years there have been many great prison movies. “Escape Plan” is not one of them. What it is, is a good, old-fashioned rock-‘em, sock-‘em escape movie, with some nonsensical conspiracy McGuffin layered on top to make it seem edgy and ‘now’.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who has the improbable job of being a professional prison tester, demonstrating how easy it is to break out of maximum security facilities in return for a fat fee. He’s aided by his business partner (Vincent D’Onofrio) and support team of Michael Scott’s girlfriend from the American [and superior] version of “The Office” (Amy Ryan) and rapper-turned-actor 50 Cent (31p).
The film starts with Breslin demonstrating his skills by breaking out of prison and then informing the infuriated governor of the three things needed to break out of any prison. With the successful completion of another job under his belt, Breslin barely has time to settle back behind his desk before he’s offered a bumper payday to take a private job: attempt to break out of a prison nicknamed The Tomb which is off the grid, officially denied by all governments and privately run and funded. It houses the worst of the worst, the people governments simply want ‘disappeared’, so it’s important to make sure it’s escape proof. Once inside, Ray meets up with Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the former associate of a multi-billion dollar Robin Hood-esque redistributor of the wealth of the 1%-ers, who are keen to track him down. He also comes face to face with the villainous and corrupt Warden Hobbs (Jim Caviezel) and his brutish lackey Drake (Vinnie Jones). Breslin quickly discovers that he too has been set up and must work with Rottmayer to form an uneasy alliance with Javed (Faran Tahir), the leader of a group of Muslim prisoners to defy Warden Hobbs and escape from the ultra-security glass walled prison.
The plot’s pretty thin but then I wasn’t expecting this to be “The Shawshank Redemption” with Rocky and the T-800. The stuff in The Tomb is actually pretty decent and the escape set pieces are exciting although there’s no denying our heroes have lost a yard or so of pace over the years. The action outside the prison, however, is dealt with in such a rushed and perfunctory manner, with some loose ends tied up in a couple of throwaway scenes that you wonder just how much of a butchering job was done between story, screenplay, rewrite and what made it on screen.
While all the marketing has focussed on the fact that Stallone and Schwarzenegger share the screen, “Escape Plan” has a much more ground-breaking screen pairing up its sleeve: Jim Caviezel and Vinnie Jones. There’s a moment in the film where the two of them share a scene without any other actors and it is astonishing. Never before has the silver screen accommodate two actors so completely averse to conveying even a hint of genuine human emotions that the film almost collapses in on itself to create a super-dense emotionless singularity that would make Mr Spock green with envy. Luckily, Jones’ painfully wooden delivery prevents us from passing completely over the emotive event horizon and thankfully the two never share an unaccompanied scene again. The great Sam Neill’s performance as The Tomb’s morally conflicted Doctor provides a sharp contrast to Caviezel or Jones. Given only a fraction of the dialogue and screen time they enjoy, his character nevertheless has more pathos and depth than both of them combined and you might find yourself wishing he had more involvement in proceedings. Faran Tahir is fine in a lazy cypher of a role as a Muslim prisoner, although at least there is an attempt to make his faith relevant to the plot. But what of our two leads? Well, of the two, Stallone has always been the better actor and “Escape Plan” is no exception although Arnie here doesn’t disgrace himself. Vinnie Jones may well have been cast deliberately to lower the acting bar and take the pressure off the Austrian Oak. One of the things that struck me during this film, which is singularly unafraid of shooting its leads in close-up, is what an interesting face Schwarzenegger has now that age has begun to show. He’s always had great screen presence but time is giving him a weather beaten gravitas to go with it and, if he chooses his parts carefully, I think he has an interesting career twilight as a fascinating character actor.
The script, on the other hand, definitely needed more work and I’m surprised Stallone, quite an accomplished screenwriter himself, didn’t feel tempted to give it a final polish. It’s full of undercooked and clumsily worded clichés, desperately trying to coin a new catchphrase for one – any – of its legendary stars. Seriously, though, “Escape Plan” – if the best you can do is ‘Have a lovely day…asshole!’, I’ve got a catchphrase for you: ‘WTF’?
But “Escape Plan” largely succeeds in what it sets out to do: give us a decent action thriller starring two titans of the genre. Yes, it could have been better, but it could also have been much, much worse.