The pre-opening studio montage to Escape Plan: The Extractors contains no less than EIGHT different production credits, a mix of western and Chinese financing that includes MoviePass. Yes, MoviePass… they can’t get their ticketing service straight but hey, they’re making movies now! These also telegraph exactly who the intended audience is, the glut of production resulting in another cheap-looking, mediocre action romp with a blended cross-cultural cast that wouldn’t have stood out on Blockbuster Video shelves when Blockbuster Videos were still a thing.
Full disclosure: I really liked the first Escape Plan, and not just because it was the first “true” pairing of screen “frenemies” Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Expendables don’t count). It was a genuinely fun, colorful action blast that knew how ridiculous its premise was and went for the gusto. It was also really funny, bursting with campy performances (Jim Caviezel’s insane warden was classic) that complemented its equally insane premise.
Last year’s Escape Plan 2: Hades, which went direct-to-video (can we say direct-to-VOD yet?), signaled a change in direction for the franchise, excising not just Schwarzenegger but all the humor and winking fun in a flash of low-grade VOD mush. A third Escape Plan was announced – and started filming – before the second film was even released, though I can’t imagine anyone was desperate for more adventures in this universe. Thankfully, this is a much, much better movie. It’s still not great, or even that good, but it’s watchable in ways the last one wasn’t.
The plot is stupid, but gets the job done. Ray Breslin (Stallone) returns as the world’s best prison escaper / security expert, tasked with rescuing the daughter of Chinese mogul Wu Zhang (Russell Wong) whose been kidnapped and held hostage in a disgusting Latvian prison called Devil’s Station. In a callback to the original film it turns out that Breslin’s company was financed by Zhang’s money, a convenience that motivates Zhang’s kidnapper Lester Clark Jr (Devon Sawa) to also kidnap Breslin’s girlfriend Abigail Ross (Jaime King), providing the necessary motivation he’ll need to stay in the movie long enough
Eventually, he recruits friend and weapons expert Trent DeRosa (Bautista), relegating Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s computer hacker Hush to a single cameo, and with a determined Shen Lo (Max Zhang) out to bring down Zhang’s prison industrial complex these new expendables extractors set off to rescue both women and save the day.
Directed by John Herzfeld, who co-wrote the screenplay with a returning Miles Chapman (who skipped the second one), is less known for his direction and more for acting in other action flicks like the original Death Wish and Stallone’s own Cobra, though he’s a huge improvement over Steven C. Miller. He does the best with the micro-budget he was obviously given, despite the aforementioned glut of production logos. Yes, this movie looks incredibly cheap, like it was filmed almost entirely in giant warehouses and dimly lit hallways, but at least they’re nice-looking warehouses and hallways.
Despite being super low-budget there’s some decent production values on display, including impressive blood-squibbing effects and a few surprise kills sprinkled throughout I didn’t see coming, always a plus. As with the last film, it’s almost entirely up to the Chinese cast to bring the real action with several well-choreographed fight scenes that aren’t filmed entirely in shaky-cam or destroyed in fast-cut editing.
Stallone is, of course, Stallone, so his phoning in a lifeless performance can’t really be called a surprise. He’s enjoyed perhaps the most remarkable career revival in recent memory by simply playing his most famous character – himself – when the situation calls for it, which translates to box-office success and Oscar nominations for Rocky, Rambo and The Expendables. The rest of the time, it’s filler like this.
Fun fact: while promoting this new Escape Plan Stallone admitted that Escape Plan 2 was “the worst produced movie” he’d even been associated with. No arguments there, but I’m not sure saying the new movie isn’t as terrible is a ringing endorsement. Still, there are moments when the 72-year old Stallone looks and feels engaged, so that’s something.
Less so is Bautista, who recently laughed off the idea of joining the mega-successful Fast and Furious franchise, saying he’d “rather do good films.” After two Escape Plans – and a glance at his non-Marvel resume – I’m not sure he even knows what a “good” film really is. It may be time to admit that Guardians of the Galaxy was a fluke.
Forget the marquee stars slumming for paychecks – it’s the supporting cast that gives Escape Plan 3 the jolt it needs. Max Zhang’s slicked-back, winking Shen Lo impresses most. Western audiences may have seen him in several Ip Man movies (which, admittedly, tend to blend together). His English could use some work, but who needs English when you’ve got natural charisma? Speaking of action charisma, look for an impressive Daniel Bernhardt (who co-starred in the best, craziest episode of HBO’s Barry) mixing it up with Zhang in the best scene in the movie.
Most surprising – for real – was former teen heartthrob Devon Sawa (Caspar) playing against type as the demented Lester Clark Jr. seeking vengeance for (spoiler!) the death of his father (Vincent D’Onofrio’s Lester Clark in the original film) by crating. Remember when Anthony Michael Hall seemed to transform from the definitive 1980s nerd to jock bully in Edward Scissorhands overnight? That’s what Sawa brings here, so we may be witnessing the rebirth of a career we didn’t know we needed.
It’s faint praise, but Escape Plan: The Extractors is much better than its predecessor, and features a lot more of Stallone and Bautista onscreen earning their paychecks. As with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, this is a third chapter desperate to forget its decrepit second entry, and by doing so feels more like an actual sequel. It’s still nowhere as good as the original, however, and even with the improvements is hard to recommend to anyone but the most diehard action fans needing their fix. Bautista continues to be a poor substitute for Schwarzenegger, though Max Zhang could be the real deal, so be on the lookout for him.