Sylvester Stallone has been doing a pretty good job of bringing back classically styled action movies of varying quality to theaters in recent years. Escape Plan continues that tradition even though Stallone only wears a lead actor’s hat in this production, which is possibly why this film is one of his better endeavors lately. Many will expect a cheese-fest, especially with Arnold Schwarzenegger costarring, but those people will be pleasantly surprised to find that Escape Plan is taken seriously and that the actors all turn in acceptable performances with nary a corny line.
Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) has made a lucrative career out of testing the quality of maximum security prisons by getting himself incarcerated inside them and then breaking out. After his latest demonstration, his company is approached by the CIA to test a secret prison, and is willing to double his fee for his trouble. Unfortunately, after Breslin agrees, the terms of his agreement and the facts of his circumstances change, and he finds himself locked away in a prison designed to counter every trick Breslin knows. Worse yet, he’s at the mercy of the evil warden, Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), and his army of faceless prison guards. Breslin’s only ally inside is a mysterious inmate called Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who agrees to help Breslin break out…if they can.
A good breakout movie is similar to a good heist movie; there’s an undeniable thrill in being part of the caper and watching a complex plan executed against seemingly impenetrable defenses. To that end, audiences will actually get twice their money’s worth since Breslin first breaks out of a “normal” prison to demonstrate his ability and then takes on the secret prison, which is sufficiently imposing. Both breakout plans and executions offer enough believable logic that audiences will forgive the many farfetched aspects, like a guard not immediately feeling the plastic film placed on a keypad. Additionally, while the movie makes a small effort to portray Breslin as a man of extreme intelligence, it doesn’t account for the very specialized knowledge he uses during the main plot almost like a super power. Still, it’s doubtful audiences will care that he knows so much once the action and plotting starts.
The casting is interesting, but also feels ulterior-motivated. There are no good reasons that Stallone or Schwarzenegger should have been cast. Their salable cinematic traits – namely muscles, big guns and high body counts – aren’t exploited here except for one scene towards the end of the film. The same goes for the casting of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as Hush, Breslin’s ex-con protégé, who also happens to be a bespectacled genius. There are a lot of other actors who could have played the role better and perhaps also teased out a little more character. One can’t help but feel that Escape Plan was a shallow bank for inserting these entertainers into mainstream cinema and building or rebuilding name recognition salability. On the other hand, this cast doesn’t ruin the film, either, and all of the actors are obviously giving their all such as it is. Schwarzenegger even gets some good acting moments in, displaying glimpses at the old charisma that distinguished him as being more than just a body.
The problem with breakout and heist films is that it’s too difficult to set up an adequately impossible scenario for the protagonist to overcome, even though the film may have described the scenario as such. Meaning, there’s always some unbelievable weakness that the hero(es) will exploit. In Escape Plan, it’s a prison system that refuses to deal with Breslin adequately even after finding out who he is and what he does for a living. In fact, there’s no good reason that the prison should bother keeping him alive at all, since the prison’s job is to “disappear” people permanently. It makes sense that the prison won’t kill off Rottmayer since they need information that only he knows, but Breslin can and should have been killed on his first day inside, since whoever put him there obviously wanted him gone forever. After that, a string of improbable good luck in finding the right equipment also helps them along. The number of happy turns of events is never quite high enough to take the challenge out of the breakout, but the film could have found more clever ways to resolve some of the necessary plot vehicles.
What Escape Plan does do very well – albeit indirectly – is prove that the audiences who loved the action films of the 80s and 90s are still around and still yearn for that kind of film. The swell of emotion in watching a big guy using a big gun to dispense justice on forgettable baddies is more than nostalgia; it’s a sense of order in a chaotic cinematic reality. It’s a short-lived moment in Escape Plan, but it’s sure to be the highlight of the film. Hopefully audiences will see more of this brand of action going forward.