In a Hollywood system so obsessively geared toward youth, it may seem like a contradiction that the so-called ‘geriactioners’ – action movies starring the genre’s 80’s and 90’s stalwarts – continue to pop up and do business. The stars of these movies are unquestionably past their prime, so one might assume that their careers would peter out, such is the fickle nature of Tinsel Town. It hasn’t worked out that way. Crowds are still being drawn to these flicks in large numbers, ready to throw back the popcorn and revel in punishment being doled out by, essentially, pensioners. Part of it must be nostalgia (it is for me at least), but one wonders if it isn’t also because their young replacements just don’t have the same thick-eared charisma.
The latest of these offers the juicy prospect of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger sharing screen time. Think of it like the meathead version of Heat. This isn’t the first time these two have shared a credit crawl, but it is the first time that they’ve been the main focus and draw of a movie. In action movie terms, this is a little bit of a big deal. The one-line premise – the two of them try to break out of a maximum security prison – sounds like a sure thing. But how does it play out? Do they still have it in them, or are they finally over the hill?
For starters (pleasingly for anyone with a fondness for high-concept action movie nonsense) the story isn’t quite as simple as that. Of course it isn’t. Stallone plays Breslin, a man who, naturally, breaks out of maximum security prisons for a living. He and his business partner Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio) accept a job from the CIA to test the mettle of a new, secret installation for ‘disappeared’ criminals. A high-tech hive crammed with the worst-of-the-worst. Breslin takes the job, but before you can say ‘wrinkly beefcake’ it turns out that – oh no! – it’s all a set-up and he’s trapped in there for real. Fortunately an inexplicably friendly con named Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) is willing to help him break out.
The problem is they have no idea where they are. The facility (nicknamed The Tomb) was designed by its fastidious warden named Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), a man well-versed in Reslin’s work. The place has been designed to keep him inside. This is gonna be a challenge. Throw in your usual quota of secret identities, betrayals, unlikely allies and sketchy back stories, and bingo, you’ve got yourselves a ballgame.
Escape Plan is, for the most part, a pacy and enjoyable film that works and fits into its genre just fine. It opens well, establishing Breslin’s Houdini routine and scenes flow freely for the first act as everything gets set-up, even if the image of Stallone as a buttoned down CEO seems about as credible as, well, Ben Affleck being Batman. Once Schwarzenegger appears (stealing every scene he shares with Stallone) you’d expect things to settle into a calmer groove, but the film takes a pleasing turn and accelerates, with an escape attempt happening relatively early on. This sequence, however, only serves to ‘reveal’ the larger problem surrounding The Tomb’s location – a surprise helpfully revealed in the film’s trailer.
From here we do hit the seemingly inevitable ‘slow middle bit’, as the plot becomes as dopey as sleep-deprived Breslin. Anyone hoping for all-out action won’t be much satisfied with Escape Plan. When it does come, at the end, it’s rather perfunctory. And though the film is by no means a wreck, there’re as many positives here as negatives.
Positive: Schwarzenegger is as wryly charming as he ever was, tapping into the same well that served him previously, even showing (dare I say it) a little range. Comparatively speaking of course.
Negative: Stallone is the one who takes most of the screen time, and he’s as bad as he’s ever been.
Positive: Elsewhere there are other interesting casting choices, from the aforementioned D’Onofrio and Caviezel to the likes of Amy Ryan as Breslin’s associate / squeeze and Sam Neill as the prison doctor with a conscience.
Negative: The quirky casting also makes room for Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson as the least likely tech nerd ever and the film’s nadir Vinnie Jones, a man who only ever makes a film worse.*
Positive: There’s enough daft dialogue to please fans of the genre’s history of wonky scripting (best examples: “You hit like a vegetarian” and instant-classic “You look like a man who’s interested in things”)
Negative: Ridiculous writing doesn’t end with the dialogue as the film wraps up with some excruciating exposition. Stallone even gets to say, “I didn’t see that one comin'” to a reveal so obvious it may as well have been in the trailer too.
So really Escape Plan cuts it straight down the middle. There’s enough silliness and lumpen testosterone here to just about excuse the two-hour running time, and those looking for simple entertainment will have nothing really to complain about. Schwarzenegger in particular is on form, and on the whole this could really have been a whole lot worse. On the other hand, nothing feels particularly new or innovative and the finale doesn’t quite live up to the promise that the gonzo premise offers. Escape Plan is also particularly stupid, with plot holes so big that suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite. Seriously, warden, sort your CCTV system out. One can’t quite shake the feeling that it all might’ve been a bit more fun if the roles had been reversed and Stallone had played second fiddle to Schwarzenegger.
Still, it’s these two big names from decades past that drew me to the cinema, and they’ll likely draw me back again if some other ridiculous vehicle has them aboard. And that’s something that can’t be said for the Channing Tatums of this world. Bucking Hollywood’s conventional wisdom, older is still better. Worth a go if you’ve nothing better to do.
*the exception to the rule here is the utterly bizarre Survive Style 5+