How do prisoners get such stylized facial hair in maximum security, anyway? You won’t get an answer to this and many other pressing questions in Escape Plan, but that’s hardly the point. We’re here to see Sylvester Stallone finally co-headline a full feature action flick with fellow icon Arnold Schwarzenegger after the pair’s abbreviated cameos in the first two Expendables.
There was a moment during Escape Plan that it dawned on me just how much I missed watching Schwarzenegger playing Schwarzenegger. Beyond the bulging muscles and imposing stare, the action hero has always been something of a goofball, cheerfully belting out one-liners while belting baddies, often at the same time. Escape Plan is hardly the best thing he’s been in, but he’s seldom been better, and for those who’ve been missing his particular brand of inescapable machismo that should be enough.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a prosecutor-turned-security expert who literally wrote the book on prison security – an important plot point you’ll be reminded of throughout. Breslin spends most of his life behind bars of the world’s most secure prisons, or rather busting out of them – for a profit by revealing holes in their security protocol. When a shadowy agency offers his firm a fortune to employ Breslin’s unique skills in leak-proofing the world’s most secure prison, one specializing in “disappearing” the worst of the worst, he can’t resist.
Things start going wrong quickly after meeting Warden Hobbs (Jim Caviezel), your prototypical prison warden who’s actually a psychopath, but clearly not a very bright one; despite modeling his beloved prison after the prescriptions in Breslin’s book – a copy lay on his desk – he still doesn’t recognize his new inmate at first. But Hobbs, in complete camp mode, preens like a new father over his cold gray baby of steel and a puzzling amount of open space. It’s the ultimate prison with the ultimate name: The Tomb. And rightfully so, as masked guards shove bar-coded inmates through elaborate scanners, their every movement carefully watched and tracked before being shuffled back to glass cages.
Enter Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), among the Tomb’s most celebrated inmates, who takes an immediate liking to Breslin after spotting him carefully scoping out the place. There’s more to Rottmayer than just rocking a cool a salt ‘n pepper hair and goatee combo, and it isn’t long before the two inmates join forces to plot their great escape.
Directed by Mikael Hafstrom (2011’s The Rite), Escape Plan gets the mid-90s action thriller look and mood right, despite some truly horrifying CG inserts. The plot, already a healthy serving of Swiss cheese, only gets sillier and less realistic by the minute, though screenwriters Miles Chapman and Jason Keller get nods for inserting a semblance of intelligence and a surprisingly effective effort to break away from stereotypes. Breslin and Rottmayer make an effective team, using their brains nearly as much as brawn, shown via visual backtracking through previous scenes, Oceans 11-style. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of bone breaking, neck cracking, and bad guy killing to keep you from using your brain too much.
It’s also refreshing to see a pairing of Stallone/Schwarzenegger that doesn’t feel indebted to its stars’ relative seniority. There’s not a shred of “old man” attention or other forced geriatric homilies mucking up the fun. Remember that Sean Connery was 66 years old when he played in fellow prison flick The Rock, the same age as Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan (fun fact: both films include Jim Caviezel). Arnie’s film isn’t anywhere as good as Connery’s, but both present legendary screen icons finding a certain comfort in age-appropriate action roles and looking great doing it. If the Governator finds more roles that utilize his undeniable charisma and persona as effectively as shown here he could be looking at a much-welcome career renaissance.
The supporting cast is actually pretty great, including Amy Ryan as Abigail (Gone Baby Gone), Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson playing against type as a tech thug security expert, and even a trippy Vincent D’Onofrio as Breslin’s stationary partner. Footballer Vinnie Jones (X-Men: The Last Stand) is Vinnie Jones, enjoying the chance to cut loose as Warden Hobbs’ unstable right-hand man, and I smiled when Sam Neill showed up as the prison’s sympathetic Dr. Emil Kyrie. This isn’t exactly award- caliber material, but everyone is clearly having fun and earning an honest paycheck doing it.
Make no mistake, Escape Plan is a Stallone vehicle first and foremost, but its Schwarzenegger’s Rottmayer that ultimately makes most of the film’s shortcomings tolerable, and boy is he having a ball. Physically, Arnold looks great, and there’s a twinkle in his eye that was missing from his last few appearances. He even performs a shockingly great bit of real acting – in his native German, no less – that might get fans and naysayers alike rethinking what he’s capable of. But don’t call the Academy just yet; an extreme close-up of Arnold wantonly misappropriating stationary artillery (his second time this year after The Last Stand) reminds us he’s not done with the action just yet.