Monday, November 4, 2013

Heavy Action: Escape Plan

by Patrick Bromley
Heavy Action is back!

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.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a private security contractor who is hired to break out of prisons and demonstrate their weaknesses (which, I'm sure, is a very real thing). He's hired by the government to be locked away in a top secret, off-the-books, state of the art prison called The Tomb. No one knows its location. No one even knows who is being held there. But it's a big pay day, and his partner (Vincent D'Onofrio, aiming for "eccentric" but achieving "terrible") insists they go for it -- much to the chagrin of Ray's team, tech guy Hush (50 Cent) and Abigail (Amy Ryan, pretty and wasted).

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.
The movie fails to be interesting in other ways, too. The supporting cast ranges from bland to awful. Sam Neill shows up just to prove that he's way overqualified, playing a doctor upon whom the entire plot hinges only after another character reminds him he is a doctor. The score is generic, the photography uninspired, the action mostly nonexistent. The prison break in 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.
Contrast that with Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor who is almost the mirror opposite. The rare Schwarzenegger movies that don't work at all (and I say this as a devoted fan; if you are not one, you would argue that there are more than a few that don't work) are the ones in which his character would be better suited for a performer like Stallone -- movies like Collateral Damage and End of Days, where Arnold attempts to stretch himself mostly by playing sullen and serious.

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.


  1. Is #ScaryMovieMonth over? Is it safe to come back to F! This Movie? at last No offense to anyone intended, but I'm simply not a horror guy... the Goppers I see on The Daily Show provide plenty enough chills already, thanks.

    Anyhow, I'm disappointed that you're disappointed in this, Patrick, as I was looking forward to Redboxing it at some point - and will still likely do so, but more warily now. Though I gotta say, I'm a bit puzzled on how down you are on The Expendables 2; I thought it had all the inventive, well-produced action and nonstop campy tone (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) I think we both faulted the first for not having nearly enough of. Sure, it loses some points for employing that jerk-off Norris, but I still had an overall blast with it.

  2. It's safe to come back now. DON'T BE SCARED. And no worries about sitting out SMM, as long as you promise to always come back!

    Escape Plan is not the worst. I just wanted it to be THE BEST. And it's not very good. At home on Redbox with lowered expectations? You should be fine.

    I need to revisit Expendables 2, as I haven't seen it since opening day. Some of the jokiness is what put me off; I actually rethought the first movie and appreciated that they basically played it straight. But there were certainly things to like -- JCVD was THE BOMB and Dolph Lundgren was fun, plus some of the action was cool. I think I felt let down because the first movie seemed like a whiffed opportunity, and I was just SURE they were going to learn their lesson and fix all the problems for the second one. And I don't think they did. Having said that, I'll be there on Day One for Expendables 3, because I am an addict.

  3. Hm, interesting. I agree that there were some good moments and an effectively somber mood in the first half of EX1, especially Rourke's monologue about the woman on the bridge, before it all descended into cartoonish, badly-directed anarchic violence. Thing is, I'm just not at all sure that kind of mood can be effectively sustained for a whole movie, because these guys are, after all, a bunch of psychopaths who answer only to themselves, and wreak horrific slaughter (not to mention thousands of weapons-related customs violations) everywhere they go, and the notion that the US, or any civilized country, would just let them walk around free on their days off is appalling. These characters can't ever stop slaughtering people, because then there'd be no movie, so the only dramatic arc available is that they don't really want to do a particular dirty job until they're guilted or revenge-fueled into it... and even then, they're still not "good" guys, just "less bad than horrible" guys. I don't want to care about them; I just want to be entertained by them.

    Ergo, I think action-farce-cartoon is the only way to go with those movies, and I think director Simon West got that. (... And, Holy cow, Wikipedia says West directed Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" music video!)

  4. Patrick your review on Escape Plan sums it all up perfectly. I think the best thing this movie could have done is get to the part where Arnold is screaming in German THEN they enact there- what's it called- oh right an attempt to flee their incarcerated situation. Then when they try to do their plan things get screwed up they knock out a guard who happens to have access to the prison's weapons storage and well you know the rest.

    I think Arnie and Sly still got it but they need to find some better scripts, hell strictly on a visual level Escape Plan isn't too bad, I could tell what was going on you know when stuff finally happened. Fortunately since The Expendables movies do so well ( foreign numbers are real high on them) Arnold and Sly have a few more shots at getting back in before Hollywood ships them off to "the home".

    1. Yes. It would have been nice to have more action in this action movie. Love the weapons storage idea.

      I really want both Arnold and Stallone to make more movies, so I'm sad when these don't make any money. But I also want their movies to better.

      At least I can still look forward to Sabotage, which will team Arnold with JAKE SULLY.

  5. I agree with you about a lot of the movie but I think Stallone is kind of funny in a Vin Diesel way. He's so square and self-serious that I think it makes some of his line deliveries (un)intentionally funny. For example, when they were giving the guards nicknames or when he said the prison food was disgusting etc.

  6. This is somewhat disappointing to hear. I didn't expect greatness, but hoped to have a whole lot of fun. That's what I got with Last Stand and Bullet to the Head; knowing that you enjoy those but only recommend this for Redbox sucks.

    I always try to remind myself of a couple of things before any movie I watch: 1) how the late great Roger Ebert always said "it's not so much what a movie is about as HOW it is about it" and 2) It is what it is, not what we want it to be. Sadly, it sound like what this is, is kinda boring, and boringly so. I will check it out come Redbox time.

    Thanks, Patrick.

  7. I enjoyed the movie, mostly because there's a lot of Schwarzenegger making UAHH sounds which always amuses me, but by the end I felt kind of let down. The climax was kind of not there. We didn't even get a good bad one liner.

    And Jim Caviezel was just embarassing. Whenever actors make those kinds of choices (like the weird cleaning his suit thing) it feels like a cheap trick instead of actual acting. Reminded me of the villain in Die Hard 5.