As we press on through autumn and into winter, we enter what we in the ‘biz’ refer to as ‘Awards Season.’ From late September through mid-January, Hollywood slows its roll a little on the blockbusters and starts introducing more dramatic fair. Smaller movies with stranger premises helmed by acclaimed directors and platforms for the stars of Hollywood to flex their acting muscles. We’ve already had a few with the likes of The Butler, Rush, Gravity, and Captain Phillips (recognize the last two!), but we’ve got many, many more to come, with the likes of All Is Lost, 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, August: Osage County, and Her.
It may surprise you to hear that Escape Plan is not one of those movies.
“But Grant,” I hear you cry, “You write a blog! You’re the movie critic type! Why wouldn’t you see something a little more respectable? Like The Fifth Estate, which also came out this past weekend?” The Fifth Estate certainly had some interesting talent behind it: actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl (who impressed as Nikki Lauda in Rush), Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie, as well as director Bill Condon, who gave us such films as Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, and Dreamgirls. (I’ve not seen any of them, but I’d like to.) He also gave us the last two Twilight movies (which I have seen), so that’s not necessarily a mark of quality. Also, I’m not sure a film made only two years after the events it dramatizes is going to have much meaningful to say about its subject. And considering the abysmal reviews and box office it pulled off this weekend, I think I might be right.
(Also, for real, the hair. It hurts my eyes.)
So what does Escape Plan director Mikael Håfström have under his belt, besides a really cool-ass name? Erm… Derailed. 1408. The Rite.
Alright, alright, what we’re really here for is Sly and Arnie, right? It’s been an interesting year for these action icons. After summarily running California into the ground and couple of Expendables cameos, Schwarzenegger decided to return to acting. His triumphant comeback, The Last Stand, was an ignominious bomb. It also, with the exception of one pretty cool car chase at the end, kinda sucked. Stallone, on the other hand, has basically spent the past few years riding off his legacy (not player hating, people), with sequels to Rocky, Rambo, and, of course, the Expendables films, which practically run on nostalgia. His only movie of the past seven years to not trade on one of those franchises, Bullet to the Head, was also a flop (though much more fun, in its own kuckleheaded way.) But here they are, together at last! Not just like a cameo or something, but for real together! Surely audiences will flock to see the two titanium-jawed titans take on anything! Again, not so much… (Though again, they take solace in neither flopping as hard as The Fifth Estate.)
“Goddammit, Grant,” you say, “is the frickin’ movie any good?”
No, not really. But yeah, sort of. More than I expected, anyway.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who makes a living testing the effectiveness of maximum security prisons by breaking out of them. Where others use the term ‘Wrote the Book on It’ as an expression, Breslin literally did write the book on his profession, a fact of which we are constantly reminded. He runs his business with Lester Clark, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, a man who seems to have a career out of playing characters with the words ‘DON’T TRUST THAT GUY!!!’ written all over them. His crack team of assistants includes 50 Cent as his resident computer genius (yes, that 50 Cent), and Amy Ryan, who plays… somebody, I guess. Amy Ryan? I’m not sure…
Anyway, Breslin is soon approached by a mysterious woman who wants him to test a facility called ‘The Tomb’ (which was also this movie’s original, much cooler-sounding title), an off-the-record penal facility that’s designed to hold most dangerous of criminals… or the ones that governments simply don’t want to give a fair trial. It’s supposed to be escape-proof, and Breslin is being offered twice his normal fee – in advance – to ensure it is. Gee, I wonder if this is too good to be true? I wonder who could have possibly set him up? I wonder if Stallone will ever escape? Anyway, he’s put in Mega Jail, he meets Schwarzenegger, doesn’t like him, then likes him, the Warden is a dick, blah blah blah, you know the drill.
Part of the fun of Escape Plan is the cavalcade of familiar faces that roll through. Vinnie Jones, who you may remember as Bullet-Tooth Tony from Snatch, plays Drake, a.k.a. Head Asshole Guard, with the requisite snarl. Sam Neill, of all people, plays the prison doctor who claims to be cynical But Has A Heart Of Gold™. The aforementioned 50 Cent mumbles his way through computer jargon that we’re supposed to believe he understands. (Just to be clear: It’s not because he’s 50 Cent. It’s because he’s a bad actor.)
The standout performance here is Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, TV’s Person of Interest), who seems to be having a blast. As Warden Hobbes, Caviezel takes dialogue that seems to have been written with a larger-than-life performance in mind and finds a way to put his hushed, sarcastic, slightly effeminate spin on all of it. He also polishes dead butterflies, because y’know, evil people and their quirky hobbies! Schwarzenegger seems to be having fun as well, playing Rottmeyer, the prisoner who immediately cottons onto Breslin for his own purposes. Whether he’s starting prison riots or staging diversions by screaming religious curses in German, Schwarzenegger throws himself headlong into the, which is both fun to watch and a reminder of why we all paid attention to him the first place.
Look, when it comes right down to it, Escape Plan is not a particularly surprising movie. Nor a smart one. And for an homage to its two stars’ blood-soaked 80’s career, its violence is surprisingly tame and sparse. …But fuck it, man, I had fun. Watching Stallone come up with a plan, the warden fuck around him, and then Stallone hand out his comeuppance, while all stuff you’ve seen before, somehow kept me entertained throughout. I may not have been surprised, but hey, at least I was never bored.
So do I recommend it?
If it’s on Netflix and you’ve got two hours to kill and you’ve watched everything else and you’ve got extremely low expectations.
Come to think of it, I think that last part helped me quite a bit.