by Patrick Bromley
The 12-year old me should be every bit as excited about the existence of Escape Plan as the existence of Freddy vs. Jason. Two greats from the genre I love finally sharing the screen! The adult me is every bit as disappointed in Escape Plan as I was in Freddy vs. Jason.
Yes, the two titans of '80s action cinema finally co-star in a movie together and it's mostly a big letdown. Teased all the way back in Last Action Hero (when Jack Slater sees a cardboard standee of Sylvester Stallone and scoffs), practically ruined by the two Expendables movies, this is the first real cinematic teaming of Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Because of this, Escape Plan was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. One would assume, then, that the fact that it isn't very good would make it one of my biggest disappointments. That's not the case. I knew it was a scorpion.
Ray is snatched off the street and wakes up in The Tomb, a futuristic prison where the cells are made of glass, the guards are abusive and sadistic and the warden (Jim Caviezel, aiming for "eccentric" but achieving "As Bad as Vincent D'Onofrio) promises that Ray will never leave. Luckily, Ray befriends another prisoner, Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), and the pair begin to hatch a...something...I can't think of the phrase...OH WAIT I GOT IT -- a WAY OUT. They begin to hatch a way out.
Yes, instead of Escape Plan following Stallone and Schwarzenegger as they punch and shoot their way through rows and rows of armed guards, they mostly sit around and scheme. What were the filmmakers thinking, teaming up arguably the two biggest action stars of all time in a movie that mostly has them sit across a table from one another and whisper? Why are they not allowed to do what they do best? Sure, the best days of both men are behind them. They're not going to engage in start-to-finish fist and firefights. But other recent vehicles have found ways to incorporate the age and abilities of both stars in a way that keeps them interesting and relevant (I'm thinking of Rocky Balboa or this year's The Last Stand). Couldn't Escape Plan taken a page from either movie and built out its two main characters once these two actors signed on? Aside from a scene in which Schwarzenegger speaks German (the only time I can remember it happening in one of his movies), there's hardly anything about the film that feels like a Stallone/Schwarzenegger vehicle. It fails to make use of its two biggest assets.
Tango & Cash was better. The futuristic prison in Face/Off -- the one with the magnet boots -- was cooler and more sci-fi than the one here. And those were just sequences inside of bigger movies. Escape Plan should be better in every way when it comes to this stuff and it isn't. More than once, I found myself wishing it had instead been made as a direct-to-DVD movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Scott Adkins. Not only would it have had way more kick ass action, but also would have embraced its B-movie sci-fi weirdness a whole lot more. Everything about this version of the movie feels ironed out and watered down.
Stallone is a big part of the problem, phoning in a sleepy performance that recalls his unremarkable work in disappointments like Assassins and The Specialist. Aside from his name and his job, we don't really know a single thing about Ray Breslin as a character, and Stallone fails to inform him with any distinguishable personality. A back story is introduced that, while mostly thrown away (and almost impossible to follow, as though it's spoken in code), attempts to justify why Ray had devoted his life to making sure that prisons are inescapable. I guess screenwriters Miles Chapman and Jason Keller were worried the audience wouldn't find the film plausible unless this particular choice is explained. Knowing what we know about Ray, though (and this is literally the only thing we know about him), why would he then agree to help his fellow prisoners escape? It flies in the face of the character's entire philosophy. That would be fine if the change of heart registered or was part of Stallone's arc. It isn't. It's a plot convenience, nothing more.
The best thing about Escape Plan is that it perfectly highlights the differences between Stallone and Schwarzenegger as movie stars. Here as in almost every movie he makes, Stallone is incapable of loosening up and having fun on screen. In interviews and (I assume) in life, he appears to be a relaxed, funny guy able to enjoy his success and not take himself too seriously. That never translates to the screen, though, as Stallone always plays some variation on "grim." It can be right for the part -- John Rambo has seen too much shit to be cracking wise -- but there's no reason every character Stallone plays should be stone faced.
I know what you're thinking: 1) That's not a acting choice, that's his range. Maybe you're right. But a few of his performances have hinted at a lightness -- think of how sweet he is in two or three of the Rocky movies -- that I know he has it in him. OR 2) He has loosened up before! What about Tango & Cash? Oscar? Stop or My Mom Will Shoot??? Even in his rare "comedic" turns, it all feels forced. It's hard to argue that Stallone is lightening up when it seems like he's working so hard to seem like he's lightened up. It's why his comic stuff never works. We feel him straining.
For the most part, though, Schwarzenegger has always had a great sense of humor about himself not just in real life, but on screen, too. He knows the kind of movie star he is. He knows the kinds of movies he makes. More importantly, he knows his strengths and his limitations, and chooses projects perfectly tailored to make the most of both. He's clearly having a great time in Escape Plan, and anything that works in the movie only works because of him. He gets all the big laughs, and not just because they're handed to him -- Stallone is allowed a few jokes, too, but they all sink because he doesn't know how to deliver them like Arnold. Schwarzenegger gets to create a character. He gets to do some real acting (a scene in solitary confinement, in which he screams at his captors in German, is full of rage and real pain). When he finally gets behind the trigger of a machine gun in the movie's climax, it's impossible not to want to cheer -- not just because it's the first moment of action movie catharsis (at least SOMETHING is finally happening), but because it's so good to finally see Schwarzenegger right where he belongs.
Escape Plan is the third Stallone/Schwarzenegger box office disappointment of the year, following the paltry takes of both The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head. It's also the weakest of the three movies. Schwarzenegger's solo outing was pretty good, and while Bullet to the Head was not great, at least it was made with personality by a great filmmaker like Walter Hill, gave Stallone a part to play and had an amazing performance by Jason Momoa. Aside from the few moments Schwarzenegger made me grin, there's not much to recommend in Escape Plan. It's never insultingly stupid -- no more than many of the action films I love -- nor is it incompetent or badly made. Its greatest sin is that it is dull and wastes an opportunity 30 years in the making. Instead of celebrating a new phase in its stars' careers, it feels like a leftover from the late '90s, when both action icons were making some of their weakest movies.
I don't think either Stallone or Schwarzenegger is tired, but Escape Plan sure makes it seem that way.