IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 116 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Ray Breslin is a former prosecutor who co-owns Breslin-Clark, a Los Angeles-based security firm that specializes in testing the reliability of maximum security prisons. He gets into prisons to study their designs and the guards’ habits to find and exploit their weaknesses, thus enabling him to escape without a hitch. He and his business partner Lester Clark are offered a multimillion dollar deal by CIA agent Jessica Miller to test a top-secret prison and see if it is escape-proof. Breslin agrees to the deal and gets himself captured in New Orleans under the guise of a Spanish terrorist named Porto, but the plan goes awry when his captors remove the tracking microchip from his shoulder and drug him on the way to the prison….
It’s a bit of a shame really. Twenty years ago, a film starring both Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger would have totally and utterly slaughtered every other film in sight. Even ten years ago it would have done pretty well. But now, it’s different. The 67 year old Sly and the 66 year old Arnie are in the twilight of their careers, whether they like it not, and, though fans of both stars like myself don’t want to believe it, your average filmgoer now sees them as has-beens [yes, The Expendables films were hits, but those all-star romps are a something of a different kettle of fish and even the second one didn’t do anywhere near as well as the first]. There’s nothing really wrong with this, the old must make way for the new, though considering Sly and Arnie remain the two greatest action stars [I’m not talking about acting ability or even physical skill, I’m talking about in terms of being stars] in the world, us fans simply don’t see anyone who can replace them, with perhaps only Jason Statham getting close. Us fans want them to be around forever, doing their thing, and it just isn’t possible.
The two don’t help by still starring in action films where we’re supposed to believe in them beating up men half their age. Chan has moved away from his usual kind of roles, albeit with mixed results, into more dramatic parts. I always thought Stallone, considering his good acting in most of the Rocky movies and Copland, would do the same, and with great success, but the Italian Stallion has decided not to and instead carry on doing the same kind of thing. There are scenes in Rocky and Rocky 2 that show a really strong performer at work, okay maybe not a versatile one, but one with great physicality and emotional openness whose talents could be put to good use and even developed. Sadly he has chosen not to really do that. As for Schwarzenegger: well, he was never much of an actor, but he was an intelligent one who knew how to play to his strengths, and one who seemed to retire from acting at the right time….but then decided to come back, only to find that his time might have passed. For all the complaining by some fans about films nowadays not tending to star ‘true’ action stars [I actually rather like Dwayne Johnson, he just needs the right film to propel him to superstardom, and the same could be said of Statham really: he needs a Terminator, Total Recall, Rocky or Rambo], there comes a time when some people should just call it a day. At least Clint Eastwood began to play his age.
Watching Escape Plan, formerly The Tomb, was a somewhat frustrating experience for this fan, and no, it’s not because the film isn’t any good. For God’s sake, it has Stallone and Schwarzenegger together, and I don’t mean Expendables together as in Arnie turning up for a couple of scenes, I mean together for the entire film. For me, that’s enough to raise any movie. It’s because it should have been made ages ago, now feels like a movie out of time, and just isn’t getting the huge audience numbers a film this enjoyable deserves. Because enjoyable it certainly is, an unashamed throwback to the glory days of the 80’s, deliberately reminiscent of films like Lock Up and Death Warrant but better. It’s not gratuitously violent, but nor does it tone it all down for the sake of a ‘PG-13’ rating. It’s a prison film, so it definitely has its grim moments where inmates really are treated badly, but it never takes itself too seriously to diminish the fun element. There may be the odd twist in the story, but basically the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, and that’s it. None of your laborious angst-filled stuff that is fashionable these days. It’s full of the usual cliches you find in films like this, but prison films are by their very nature quite limited in what the filmmaker can do. Much like with slasher films, it’s seeing if and how the writer and director can tweak the formula and make it seem fresh. Escape Plan doesn’t quite seem fresh, but then again it’s a film basically living in the past. It succeeds because it’s so fast paced that you have little time to ask yourself where you’ve seen something before, and actually it does have the odd good idea in amidst all the tried and tested elements.
We open a little confusingly with our hero Bresling doing his job: breaking out of a prison to test its security. We ‘re not entirely sure how he does it because certain details seem to be missing, but then we have a great scene where Bresling’s boss tells the prison warden how escapable his prison is and tells him who Bresling is and that he works for him. Bresling tells of how he figured out where the weak points of the prison were and we flash back to being shown the important details that we weren’t shown before. Cool stuff, and we then get a bit of mild flirtation between Breslin and his colleague Abigail. They clearly like each other, but we haven’t got time to waste on this sort of thing, and move on to Bresling’s next assignment. It feels fishy as soon as it’s mentioned, and you definitely know something’s wrong when Bresling’s microchip is bloodily removed so that the others don’t have a clue where he is, and he is taken to the most brutal prison since Midnight Express. He has been set up by manipulations he doesn’t yet know about, and maybe one of the people working with him is involved? Actually the whole plot is rather good throughout. The emphasis is on Breslin and Schwarzenegger’s character Rottmayer figuring out how to escape, but there are some good twists and turns, some of them well executed visually, like when Brendan Galvin’s camera does a huge pull back and reveals where exactly this top-secret prison is!
The prison set is visually striking with its glass cages and almost geometric design, though it more resembles one from the future than now. Of course there’s a warden, and he really is one you love to hate, superbly played by Jim Caviezel in a quite restrained but frightening manner. Some of the guards go around in black suits and masks looking like they’ve walked off THX-1138, and the leader and most thuggish of them is played by Vinnie Jones, that great character actor who always so well plays one character: himself. This really is a forbidding prison and the film really is tense enough to make you wonder at times if our two heroes will escape. There’s an especially nail-biting sequence where Breslin has got out of his cell to explore while Rottmayer is making lots of noise to distract the guards. Yes, we’ve all seen it before but it still works. It’s also nice to see good old-fashioned blood squibs, though director Michael Hafstrom, a generally decent if not outstanding director with the goodish horror movies 1408 and The Rite to his credit, has decided to go along with the current fashion for filming action with rapid edits and shaking the camera about. No 80’s action movie was shot like this: amazingly, they knew how to shoot action properly in those days. It does I suppose help disguise the silliness of Sly and Arnie beating up much younger guys, though seeing these mid-60 year olds having the crap kicked out of them by the guards leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Stallone can’t seem to decide whether to play his character broadly or low-key, but the two stars are clearly having a ball. Their chemistry is very strong. Unfortunately writers Miles Chapman and Jason Keller don’t give them any memorable lines, just some half-hearted attempts at quips. The film overall could have been funnier, but then they obviously tried to avoid Expendables-style send-up. There is a lot to like in Escape Plan, it’s well crafted, and the stars have nothing to be ashamed of in making it. I really do think it’s time for them to call it a day though, at least in terms of films like this. Then again, would you want to tell them to their faces?