Director: Mikael Håfström
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel
Length: 116 minutes
There is a little-known place where some of the world’s most dangerous men are sent when the powers that be wish them to disappear forever. No one ever talks about it, but it is a living hell in which the forgotten are forced live out the rest of their lives with no hope of escape. I am of course talking about the dreaded realm of straight-to-DVD action films in which fallen heroes like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme currently reside. Sylvester Stallone has been to this place before with such early 2000’s flicks as Avenging Angelo and Shade. He has seen its ugly face and, as Zookeeper and Spy Kids 3-D will testify, there is nothing he won’t do to avoid going back there. Mikael Håfström’s Escape Plan may be silly, it may not always make a lot of sense and, with a cast which includes the likes of Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Neill, Vinnie Jones, 50 Cent and The Passion of the Christ’s Jim Caviezel, it may be one of the most hotly anticipated action films of any decade except this one. But after the box office disappointments that were this year’s Bullet to the Head and The Last Stand, it provides a strong reminder of why Stallone and his Austrian counterpart aren’t quite ready go the way of Dolph Lundgren and his muscular peers.
Like many aspects of Escape Plan, the plot strikes a neat balance between goofy and serious. Stallone plays the cartoonishly smart Ray Breslin, a man paid to test the vulnerabilities of the nation’s prisons by getting incarcerated before breaking out. Breslin and his team are approached by the CIA to test out a new, top secret super prison where all the worst criminals are sent, but once Breslin gets there, he soon realises that he’s fallen victim to a devious, barely-explained conspiracy and has been detained indefinitely. Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger, the co-star of Escape Plan, playing the fellow inmate who collaborates with Breslin to hatch some a breakout plot or flight scheme. Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion this most certainly is not, but if implausible fight sequences and eye-rolling lines like “You hit like a vegetarian!” are enough to get you grinning like an idiot, then you came to the right place.
The script manages to play to the strengths of its cast members and allows for some surprisingly strong chemistry between two limited actors
Much of the film’s appeal comes from its two leads. The script manages to play to the strengths of its cast members (hence Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s perfectly fine performance as the man who does practically nothing for the entire film) and allows for some surprisingly strong chemistry between two limited actors. While The Expendables films make the admittedly accurate assumption that putting Stallone and Schwarzenegger together in the same room will be sufficient in provoking squeals of excitement, Escape Plan sees the two personalities bounce off each other much more effectively, perhaps because this time they’re actually given things to do together. Although Stallone’s monosyllabic mumbling is exactly what you’d assume from him, Schwarzenegger balances out Stallone’s sombre performance by bringing some unexpected liveliness to the table. For what it’s worth, on a technical level this is easily one of the best performances of Schwarzenegger’s career but, more to the point, I can’t remember the last time he looked like he was enjoying himself this much – and when Schwarzenegger enjoys himself, you can bet that his audience will enjoy themselves too. Even Jim Caviezel manages to let himself go in a fun, scenery-chewing turn as the prison’s sadistic warden.
One thing I admire about Escape Plan is how direct it is. It never tries to cover the tracks of its own dumbness by resorting to half-hearted social commentary or grating meta-humour and it doesn’t feel the need to create an annoying comic relief character or a shoehorned-in love interest. While it is a little disappointing that the film decides to throw a clichéd dead family member backstory into the mix, even the writers seem to realise that this is a dead end by the film’s explosive climax. Who has time for such trivial matters when Schwarzenegger is mowing down masked goons with a machine gun? This is a film which aims low and hits its targets – and in a time where better funded but no less cheesy or brainless action films like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen can be almost entirely devoid of joy, this is not an achievement to be sniffed at. Escape Plan may not approach the heights of either of its leads’ best films but at least it makes good on the promise of its trailer. That’s about as much as we can reasonably ask for from these two dinosaurs at this point in their careers and enough to make me hope that they don’t fall off the map after The Expendables 3.