ESCAPE PLAN Review

In the early months of 2013 audiences everywhere were overwhelmed with the amount of testosterone-filled action flicks that typically didn't see the light of day until the prime to late summer months, but this was different as each of these were more a solo effort from a band of well-tested performers that did well enough together, but couldn't pass up the temptation of breaking out on their own. Whether it be Arnold Schwarzenegger's fun and entertaining comeback flick The Last Stand, Sylvester Stallone's bleak and dreary Bullet to the Head or even Jason Statham's five-hundredth attempt at playing a hit man in Parker or Bruce Willis taking up the ole McClain name again for another Die Hard go around, the fact of the matter is that none of these performed all too well and left most of us simply yearning for a time when they all re-unite and turn out another Expendables movie (except for you Bruce Willis, you greedy bastard!). Needless to say, this didn't bode well for the other flick Stallone and Schwarzenegger teamed up to make this year; originally titled The Tomb and later changed to Escape Plan. But hey, at least they were pairing up for this one which had to mean some level of excitement would follow, right? While this could most definitely be debated and likely go either way with plenty of support on either side I was personally pretty excited to see what kind of over-the-top antics these guys could get into and put up on screen at their age. And while they may not be the marquee names or box office draws that they used to be on their own, Escape Plan is a more than competent action flick with such an outlandishly intriguing plot and strong sense of pacing that we never get bored, are never taken out of the plot turns and are right in the thick of the conflict with Stallone's Ray Breslin and Schwarzenegger's Emil Rottmayer that we don't care to step back and examine its shortcomings or bother to comment on the acting. Reality is checked at the door and despite the fact this will be one of those films that will play countless times on HBO and eventually FX where it will no doubt be easier to take it for what it is I can't say I didn't enjoy myself to the fullest as I experienced what is the pure definition of unabashed, unadulterated B-movie brilliance.  

Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) plot their "escape plan". 
Typically it wouldn't matter so much in these types of films, but Escape Plan makes it clear early on this isn't necessarily going to be about the action, I mean they still throw in some nice gun play and plenty of prison brawls, but this was just as much about the intricate story as it was the beefed up knuckleheads gunning for one another. With Stallone and Schwarzenegger sharing top billing for the first time it was nice to see that wasn't the sole purpose this film existed, but instead these two were brought together because the film called for there to be a strong protagonist and mysterious supporting character that becomes as much a part of the action. That being said, Stallone takes the leading role as his Ray Breslin is known around the world for his expertise on "structural security" and to point out the flaws of prisons and maximum security institutions Breslin is slipped into these places under an alias and learns the layout, the routine and then gets help from the outside to show that any prison can be broken. He is the head of a large security company with his partner Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio) and usually reverts to his co-workers Hush (50 Cent) and Abigail (a criminally underused Amy Ryan) who he may or may not have a little something with, as his go-to outsiders for help. After successfully breaching the walls of yet another prison Ray returns to work only to have another offer on the table and one that will pay double his regular fee. Naturally, there is a catch. This job will consist of Ray going into an ultra-secret, high-tech facility where no one will know his location and no one will know who he actually is. His friends don't like it, but his partner does and Ray is up for the challenge. Once inside what has affectionately been labeled "The Tomb" it's clear Ray has been deceived and wrongly imprisoned as there is no intention of letting him free whether he breaks out or not. The warden is not who he was told it would be, but a devious Jim Caviezel who forces Ray to team up with fellow inmate Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) to devise a plan that will allow them to make the impossible possible.

What makes Escape Plan more than bearable though is the fun factor as both actors are clearly invested in what they're doing here and have no problem living up to the type of movies we expect from them. It is tough to operate in the same genre over and over again while finding new avenues to tell stories in and we can at least applaud these two for going for something with a little bit of a twist this time and choosing a script that was as much an actioner as it is a futuristic mind game that has their characters being put through the physical ringer while exhausting their mental ability to its limits. This makes for a nice mix of intelligent and appropriately comedic conversation with the added doses of brutality mixed in throughout containing both a new edge to the tone of the film and credibility to the setting. The main attraction here is clearly the combination of its two iconic action stars though and to their credit both of these guys are in top form. Stallone, true to his serious and stoic self plays the straight man here and that is fine enough because he does it well and hasn't ever handled the humorous side of things as well as Arnie can. Which brings us to Schwarzenegger's Emil Rottmayer, a man who immediately strikes up conversation with Breslin and is intent on getting to know more about him, about who he is and why he has joined them in this fortress of solitude. There is an instant likability to his character and we trust his comforting presence immediately despite the fact he is as hard-edged and intimidating as anyone else in the joint. Schwarzenegger really gives it his all though, delving not necessarily deep, but into the realm of quality acting especially when his character is being tortured or in a particular scene where he is asked to be a distraction. I sat in somewhat disbelief as I bought into the performance he was giving and for a split second was able to see him more as his character rather than the off-screen persona that is so larger than life it typically overshadows whatever generic character name he has been entrusted with. Say what you will, but that means something when discussing the former Governor of California and more than anything this film shows he still has it in him and exemplifies why he became a star in the first place.

Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) interrogates Rottmayer in hopes of finding out some important information.
Rounding out the rest of the cast it would be a crime not to mention at least two other influential characters that make the film more engaging than I initially ever imagined it would be. Both Caviezel and Faran Tahir (Iron Man, Star Trek, Elysium) as Javed prove to be intricate parts of Escape Plan's story and both actors whether simply hamming it up and having a lot of fun being the baddie as Caviezel does or delivering a shot of genuine humanity as Tahir does add layers to the film that without them may not have been as appealing or effective. They aren't large roles, but they are significant and each actor makes them count as does Vinnie Jones who it was simply nice to see on screen with both Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Director Mikael Håfström (1408, The Rite) has the 80's/90's action aesthetic down and he keeps the film moving with a familiar but strangely comforting soundtrack from frequent collaborator Alex Heffes that plays up the action elements and secrecy of the operation our heroes are trying to pull off. The production design is also something to be marveled at as the tomb itself is a rather elaborate and awe-inspiring piece of work that makes you wonder how much was actually built, how much was rendered later using special effects, and if it were real how well would it actually function. Everything about the place is inspired whether it be the strictly dark color palette with the jumpsuits tracking the inmates like products at a department store or the jabbawockee-inspired prison guards that create a further sense of mystery and confusion. All of these aspects come together to form a cohesive and entertaining piece of cinema that isn't of the highest regards and certainly has plenty of loose ends were we to examine it closer, but for what it was going for it accomplishes with charm to spare. It has clever moments, it has Stallone and Schwarzenegger going at it hand to hand combat-style and then separately firing machine guns and hanging onto helicopters and blowing stuff up so what more do you want? If nothing else, kudos to these guys for not only playing to their strengths, but for transcending their stereotypes at the same time and delivering on an idea that might have only been as grand in theory as it could have turned out to be in reality, even if it is twenty years too late.