Schwarzenegger outmuscles Stallone in dumb fun "Escape Plan"
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have spent the better part of the last decade trying to convince audiences that they're not over the hill quite yet. In the process, they've only proven the opposite. All of that meta-winking and tough-guy posturing gets a little exhausting and a lot desperate after a while. They still want to be cool and relevant, but like watching CNN cover twerking, it just feels sad.
"Escape Plan," from director Mikael Hafstrom, would seem to say there's a little bit of life still left in these two lumpy, wrinkled action stars. Well, one of them at least.
In the new captivity thriller, Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a genius prison specialist (stop laughing) who breaks out of jails in the hopes of showing their owners their weak spots. He's assisted by his lovely second-in-command Abigail (Amy Ryan), Lester his sleazy boss (you know he's sleazy because he's played by Vincent D'Onofrio) and his computer wizard Hush, played by 50 Cent. Because when I think brainy tech nerd, I think the guy who did "Candy Shop."
Despite the numerous red flags, Breslin takes a new gig for the CIA, testing their high-concept, mega-security prison in an unknown location. The job ends up being a trap, and Stallone ends up locked in some bizarre techno-hive facility, filled with thick-glass cells, creepily black-masked guards and some of the world's most dangerous criminals. The warden (Jim Caviezel) has no plans to let Breslin go, so it's up to the famed escape artist to find the one crack in the unbreakable prison's walls and break free.
Along the way, he picks up an ally in Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), a fellow unjustly incarcerated inmate. The two start scheming, which does not please the unrelenting warden or his lead henchman (Vinnie Jones because the casting director was seriously on her game). They also try enlisting the help of the facility's conscience-heavy doctor, played by Sam Neill. After all, he does have experience working with dinosaurs.
The screenplay, written by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller, throws around a lot of amusing twists and turns, but don't let that confuse you: "Escape Plan" is really quite dumb. The story barely holds together. There's almost no motivation for locking Breslin away, and Rottmayer's backstory – he's imprisoned because he knows where to find Victor Mannheim, an important guy, I guess? – barely comes together.
The story isn't the draw, though. It's the two stars, walking relics of a time long since past. Back in the day, Stallone was easily the better actor of the two. He'd try harder projects – it's easy to forget now that "First Blood" is a far more sober action flick than its sequels – while Schwarzenegger let his charisma, earnest intentions and muscle tone do most of the acting for him.
Cut to "Escape Plan," though, and that one-time fact has flipped on its head a bit. Stallone is now a tired bore, seemingly drained of any screen presence. He's strangely self-serious (it's "The Expendables" all over again) despite the fact that it's obviously a B-movie with no further ambitions.
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger is a lot of fun and precisely what the movie needs. For most of the past decade, Arnie's been stuck milking nostalgia and predictable old jokes for entertainment. Here, he's playing an actual, stand-alone character with fresh (eh, fresh enough) material, and that seems to have energized him. He's doing what he did before he became a parody of himself: playing larger than life characters with big enthusiasm and humor.
While Stallone is the lead, Schwarzenegger is the one who keeps the film afloat for the first two fairly amusing acts, along with some smaller genre pleasures. The methodical, "Ocean's 11" for dummies escape planning is occasionally tense and fun to piece together, and as the evil warden, Caviezel is the perfect amount of entertainingly sinister ham. He continually picks at his handsome wardrobe and ominously whispers every line as though he's afraid he'll wake up the script supervisor.
By the time "Escape Plan" hits the final act, however, the movie goes all out and enters gleefully unrepentant '80s action movie-dom. The bullets start flying. Helicopters are soaring in. The bad guy's henchmen seem to be aiming anywhere other than our heroes. It's a lot of silly, not quite completely mindless (but you're still probably better off leaving your brain at home) entertainment, complete with action movie zingers.
It's fitting that Stallone's quip is groanably lame, while Schwarzenegger's suitably badass one-liner saves the scene. All you'd need is Caviezel petting at his tie knot, and that's pretty much "Escape Plan" in a nutshell.
If I'm being picky, I wish Hafstrom – who also did the equally surprisingly above-average horror flick "1408" – brought a little more visual spark or creative flair to the project. Its basic, no-frills B-movie presentation comes off a little drab, especially combined with the grey industrial prison setting and Stallone's too-tough-for-the-room performance.
Still, "Escape Plan" ends up delivering on what it promises. It's never quite technically good, but it's fun, enjoyable and occasionally actually tense. It feels more like a good time and less like doing time.
Theaters and showtimes for Escape Plan
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