Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone never teamed up in their prime, fans of eighties/early nineties action movies had to wait until both were in their sixties before they shared the screen, and that was only for a brief moment in the forgettable Expendables. These one-time rivals seem to be on such good terms now though that they joined forces a couple more times in the sequel and now have decided to co-star in a whole movie together.
The first thing Escape Plan brought to mind though was Righteous Kill, the incredibly mediocre film that finally had Robert De Niro and Al Pacino sharing the screen throughout, both long past their glory days (they only had two scenes in Heat). While Escape Plan isn’t close to the high points of Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s careers, (though I’d say Arnie’s highs are considerably higher), it’s pleasing to see that it’s no Righteous Kill either.
In fact this isn’t really a two-handed film, Stallone’s clearly the lead, and Arnie doesn’t show up until a good 40-odd minutes in. Stallone plays Ray Breslin, who’s a Houdini-like expert in escape. He intentionally gets locked-up in maximum security prisons to see if he can break out, exposing weaknesses in their systems. He demonstrates his particular set of skills in a highly entertaining opening sequence which first shows him breaking out, and then explaining all his methods to a baffled warden. His many years of doing this have given him the knowledge to write a book on how to design prisons. Naturally, he is then asked to try and break out of a prison that has been designed specifically using the information in his book. They know all of his tricks though, so before he knows it, he is abducted, drugged and carted off to an unknown, vast, almost futuristic private prison which houses the criminals ‘no country wants to deal with.’ It is here where he realises that perhaps he wasn’t ever supposed to be able to get out, that’s when he meets Arnie.
The two work off each other well and are commendably playing quite different characters. Stallone seems to be taking everything very seriously, as he tries to work his way out but Arnie’s having a blast, successfully squeezing every bit of comedy he can from a script that’s quite short on it. He’s often tasked with providing ‘distractions’ for Stallone, and when one highlight finds him needing to feign having some kind of mental break down, he amiably speeds through the whole scene in German. Perhaps it’s a sign of where he should go next, supporting and/or German language roles? He could really break some new ground for himself there.
There’s a reasonably large cast of supporting roles to back them up, and while Escape Plan unfortunately side-lines great actors like Sam Neill and Vincent D’Onofrio into virtual bit-parts, it boasts an excellent villain in Jim Caviezel’s sadistic warden and a distinctly un-stereotypical muslim gang leader played by Faran Tahir (Elysium).
Another slightly surprising element of Escape Plan is how low it is on action scenes, particularly in its first two acts. Aside from some unimpressive prison fights its main emphasis is on advancing the story. Only come the final moments does it become an all-out action fest of the kind its stars are best known for.
As one might inevitably expect though, the overall storyline isn’t as smart as it needs to be to convincingly sell how this prison could exist, and how it could possibly be broken out of. For every clever little detail the screenwriters come up with, they also rely on case of coincidence or good fortune, and some final act twists seem quite bafflingly implausible. Director Mikael Håfström (1408, The Rite) moves things along competently but doesn’t bring anything special to the table.
Rather than playing up its star’s ages for laughs, Escape Plan has them portraying characters that are obviously meant to be a bit younger than the actors really are, but both show that they can still easily make this kind of movie without embarrassing themselves. It’ll never be an action classic, but what could have been a disaster turns out to be a perfectly fun story that their old fans should find quite pleasing.