The original Escape Plan, which was more clever than some would give it credit for, had two gimmicks in its corner. The first being the long overdue pairing of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Expendables films don’t count) in a full, honest-to-goodness action thriller. True, such a marvelous thing was maybe a few decades late to be the celluloid phenomenon it might’ve been when both men were still megastars… but the chemistry was undeniable and we finally got to see – and hear – Arnold act in his native German.
The second, and far more enjoyable, was the realization that while these two 80s mega icons shared the screen it wasn’t clear they were sharing the same cinematic universe. Both Stallone and Schwarzenegger made entirely different kinds of action flicks, each grounded (or not) with their own realities that proved ideal for their unique personalities and public personas: Stallone with sweaty athleticism (Over The Top remains the first, best and only arm-wrestling blockbuster worth a damn) while Schwarzenegger could save the world and enjoy a nice stogie for his efforts. If you could believe Rocky could end the Cold War and the T-800 would be back, well, you shouldn’t have any problems buying Stallone as the world’s best security expert and a 65-year old Schwarzenegger body-slamming a few youngbloods.
No, Escape Plan 2 does the old bait-and-switch; it might be Stallone and Bautista on the box, but they’re never the center of attention. Instead, we get a largely unfamiliar cast of bland, generic actors with bland, generic facial hair to rally around. Here’s the setup: Stallone once again plays expert prison escaper Ray Breslin, head of – what else? – Breslin Security. Tempers flare following a botched hostage extraction mission, which sets up future grudges we’ll see play out over the course of 90+ minutes in which a lackluster plot is conveyed via bad guys monologuing and good guys punching them out, if only to stop the monologues.
Things heat up when Shu Ren (Xiaoming Huang, the actual lead star) and his computer genius cousin Yusheng (Chen Tang) discover they’ve been locked up in the mysterious black-site facility Hades, aka the “Zoo”, a super prison that looks like a mashup between H. R. Giger and Tron, as if someone watched Xanadu and thought “let’s do that!” Hades is, in fact, an acronym of sorts: High Asset DEtention Service. If you’re thinking of Calvin ‘n Hobbes’ G.R.O.S.S., you’re not alone.
Hades prisoners are encouraged to beat each other to a pulp – shades of Undisputed? – with the victors earning quiet time in the “Sanctuary”, a VR room that manages to look even more worse than an Oculus Rift game. Nothing about the prison itself feels intimidating or even all that interesting. There’s not even the requisite sadistic guard, played in the last film with gusto by Vinnie Jones, or anything like Jim Caviezel’s Looney Tunes-inspired prison warden. Titus Welliver (Sons of Anarchy, Bosch) does his best to fill in the gaps as the power-crazed “Zookeeper”, but he barely makes an impression.
Complicating matters is that none of Breslin’s team know where Hades is, leaving poor Shu to fend for himself. Thankfully, his mentor was best-of-the-best when it comes to prison escapes, and when not fending off certain death and the prison’s hi-tech gadgetry Shu plans a way to bust out of the joint while hoping Breslin and team of newcomers Luke (Jesse Metcalfe) and Abigail (Jaime King) can science the heck of things and help rescue him. Shu’s reasoning and methods should have been the primary focus of the movie, which could have been cinematically entertaining. Sadly, that’s not the case.
Part of the original movie’s fun, aside from the aforementioned megamuscle pairing, was watching the actual prison ‘escape plan’ take shape, showcasing a modern update on tired cliches that mixed Oceans 11-style camera swoops with ‘in the know’ audience winks. The sequel, however, largely ignores much of the cleverness for generic action and neon fluorescent strobe effects to justify its confusing subplot involving algorithms and patents (yes, patents!).
There’s entirely too much hacking, too much exposition into earpieces. We spend more time watching actors staring blankly into computer screens, tap-tapping away at keyboards like they know what they’re doing. As we’ve seen countless times before replacing punch-punch, bang-bang action with clickity-click computer hacking just isn’t as satisfying, and never will be.
Yes, Stallone does show up now and then, though his second-fiddle appearances won’t make fans happy. The real question is why he’d even bother to return at all, given how reduced this direct-to-VOD feels. Megastars usually retreat to the genre after wasting their megabucks, but Stallone’s career bounced back nicely since the original movie, earning an Oscar nomination for his return as Rocky Balboa in 2015’s Creed and even joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Guardians 2. Schwarzenegger has yet to enjoy the same career comeback, despite continued and unrelenting promises to return at some unmentioned point.
At least we’ve got Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson returning as Hush, though his brief screentime leads me to believe he’s only here to help pad the IMDB entry. The biggest add is Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), who, like Stallone, seems perfectly happy to slum in VOD land when not starring in huge blockbusters.
Escape Plan 2 feels very engineered for foreign markets, specifically Asia. The original movie was a bigger hit in China than it was stateside, and for obvious reasons. Elder statesmen like Stallone/Schwarzenegger remain big draws in a country that’s essentially reinvigorated the action film genre in a big way. This shouldn’t be underestimated: last year’s Wolf Warrior 2 earned nearly a billion dollars in China alone. Boom.
Which explains the new pairing onscreen. Huang Xiaoming is a fine action lead, having earned a respectable career in Chinese cinema already. His English could be better, but that’s hardly a problem for action stars, amiright? I’ve never heard of Chen Tang before, but he’s likewise decent, and a quick look at his IMDB page shows a sizable resume in American TV like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Bosch.
The movie is directed by Steven C. Miller (First Kill), well known for his frequent VOD collaborations with Bruce Willis, none of which readily spring to mind. Action scenes are mediocre, but they get the job done, especially during a few early martial arts smackdowns that aren’t chopped to hell. Sometimes it feels like the actors aren’t sharing the same physical space, or even in the same movie together (which is likely, given the marquee stars’ busy schedules) but whatever…This is budget-machismo that delivers pretty much what you’d expect.
None of this matters, however, as Escape Plan 3 is already well into development, giving Stallone yet another trilogy notch to his already well-noticed bedpost. Escape Plan 2: Hades isn’t a great sequel, or even a good one, most of the time. The fun and utter strangeness of the original movie is entirely absent here, and without the added bonus of seeing two of the world’s biggest personalities do their thing there’s little point to care – this sequel certainly doesn’t. Replacing the kinetic machismo of a logical prison escape with mediocre action and a boring cyber-something subplot don’t help, either. Maybe Schwarzenegger was wise to skip this one.