Escape Plan is an 80s-era concept in a modern-day guise, perhaps one that should’ve been produced long ago. This is the first ever-teaming of legendary action heroes Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in leading roles, a lofty claim-to-fame. But this is not a winking, self-aware film in the vein of Stallone’s Expendables, reveling in the teaming of its storied icons. No, Escape Plan, once known under the infinitely subtler title The Tomb, is all concept, delivering solid prison-break thrills, but perhaps at the expense of what should be a celebration of its leads’ long-standing careers in the genre.
Ray Breslin (Stallone) is a prison-break artist, finding the flaws in America’s high-security penitentiaries, and exploiting them. He’s able to analyze the structure of a cell wall in full blueprint-vision, making wardens look like fools and helping keep dangerous criminals behind bars. Stallone’s team is a group of trivially-named side characters, the money-hungry boss (Vincent D’Onofrio), the sort-of romantic interest (Amy Ryan), and the token black character/provider of the occasional guilty chuckle at the word, “motherfucker” (50 Cent), who share mixed feelings about Stallone’s latest prospect: breaking into an unsanctioned, off-the-map prison designed to be unbreakable. But once inside, the villainous Warden Hobbes (a hammy Jim Caviezel) has other plans, and Stallone quickly realizes he’s trapped inside the illegal prison codenamed “the Tomb.” Stallone must befriend the self-proclaimed “favor man” Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) and begin devising a way out, which may involve getting some help from the prison doctor (Sam Neill), who’s having second thoughts about his practice in the prison.
Like an 80s action movie, Escape Plan is kick-ass R-rated fun as it should be. Bringing together these two insanely physical, genuinely talented veterans to do what they do best is a timely reminder of the kind of real, tangible action Hollywood lacks these days. It is a funny movie when it needs to be – characters often find themselves in need of a timely distraction, which usually comes in the form of exchanging silly insults, (“You hit like a vegetarian!”) ending in all-out prison brawl, that give its characters enough time to scope things out and be one step closer to escape. It’s not as self-effacing as the humor in the Expendables films, but it works.
Also like an 80s action movie, we expect a certain number of flaws to be present – silly dialogue, crass leaps in logic, and not an ounce of moral complexity in its characters. In one scene, the Warden offers Stallone a chance to sell out Arnie, who’s holding insider knowledge on the whereabouts of another illusive criminal mastermind. Will he do it? If you think yes, you’re thinking too hard.
But unlike the venerable 80s, we have a setting that’s decidedly modern in design. The cells are all see-through, made of perhaps glass or plastic, and all on different, rotating levels which ensure prisoners are never in the same place at once. The isolation area (“the box”), ordinarily a place of darkness and seclusion, is now a small tin chamber which blares hot, blinding lights at prisoners. There’s been a lot of thought put into designing this prison to have the tightest bars we’ve ever seen before, bearing enough surprises to really feel invested.
Escape Plan is fun for fans of these actors, but as mentioned, it plays more for the concept than the leads that star in it. Perhaps Expendables, wherein both Stallone and Schwarzenegger briefly shared the screen together, has stolen Escape Plan’s thunder, or what thunder it may have had. The stars’ scenes together are great, but the film doesn’t savor the moment; Escape Plan should be a team-up for the ages, celebrating the first time both actors get to perform on an equal level, and playing to each of their strengths, perhaps even referencing their storied filmographies. The sad reality of this movie is that these roles could’ve been filled by just about any other pair of capable male action stars. Escape Plan fails to provide a reason for why it’s this film that’s worthy of being the first to team these actors as leads in particular.
The film also neglects to address of its actors’ ages, as the more self-aware Expendables did, why the pair are placed in the same high-security prison as other men nearly half their age. I found far too many revealing shots of Sly and Arnie crumpled on the floor, slowly making the long journey back upright, that made me realize like never before, “wow…these guys are old.” It could be any number of things – maybe director Mikael Håfström isn’t skilled enough to hide the age spots. Maybe Arnie didn’t have much time to train between shooting and ending his California Governator term. Maybe both he and Sly were tired of answering the age question in their more recent works. I suspect, however, it’s simply that Escape Plan wasn’t written with older action stars in mind.
In the end, we can rest easy; both Arnie and Sly get their one-liners in at the end, and there’s still a brief helicopter scene that will have fans screaming, “GET TO DA CHOPPA!” Those are the people that will get the most out of Escape Plan, a simple, entertaining action flick, which happens to feature two charismatic action stars doing what they do best. Better late than never.