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Review: ‘Escape Plan’ Starring Sylvester Stallone And Arnold Schwarzenegger

Review: 'Escape Plan' Starring Sylvester Stallone And Arnold Schwarzenegger

If this were 1988,
the world would stop for “Escape Plan,” which finally pairs Sylvester Stallone
and Arnold Schwarzenegger as above-the-title talents. The duo haven’t been able
to keep themselves from looking backwards in recent films: both seem in denial
of their advanced ages, with Schwarzenegger taking on roles fit for someone two
decades younger, and Stallone content to play his greatest hits, sometimes in
duet form with the “Expendables” movies. Appropriately, “Escape Plan” also
doesn’t feel as if it’s made for this era, but amusingly seems like a relic of
the early aughts, when Stallone was fronting dubious direct-to-video schlock, Schwarzenegger
was a declining attraction, and getting 50 Cent in a supporting role seemed like
a major coup.

Those looking for a
true even-handed matchup for the two stars will be disappointed that this is a
Stallone picture through and through. He plays Ray Breslin, a security adviser
who poses as a convict in order to test, and exploit, the structural flaws of
prison security systems. Somehow, he’s made millions off this profession, and his
escape tactics suggest he’s something of a modern-day MacGyver. Don’t stress
yourself: in a role that suggests a savant of sorts, Stallone gives a typically
lumbering, monosyllabic performance. Stallone’s never been the most expressive
of actors, but this characterization doesn’t even sniff the depth of his
third-tier characters like Barney Ross, Judge Dredd or John Spartan.

Breslin works
underneath a shady boss played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who loads his character
with many tics, primarily a phony Midwestern drawl and a habit of applying hand
lotion. With him, Breslin trusts the pitch for his new job: off-market CIA
interests are exploring the idea of a new prison and are willing to offer a
tidy $5 million if Breslin will allow himself to be abducted and taken there.
There’s a difference between practical intelligence and flat-out magic, but
everyone seems to trust Breslin is capable of the latter despite never having
seen or heard of this prison previously, attempting to break out with
absolutely no help coming from the outside. Does anyone realize this man is in
his late sixties? The biggest laugh comes from how the prison, where criminals
are kept without due process, is plan B after the CIA declared “the end of
extraordinary rendition.” Sure, boss. Sure.

Breslin consents to
a pretty obvious plan to kill him, before waking up in a glass cell. For a million (billion?) dollar independent prison, the idea of underground glass
cells doesn’t seem revolutionary, though it at least believably seems like a
challenge to Breslin. He soon realizes that it’s a trap when his evacuation
code doesn’t work, and the warden who knows his real identity isn’t present.
Breslin is now a real inmate, and he has to rely on a wily collaborator named
Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) in order to get free.

The first act of “Escape
Plan” is creaky and unconvincing, an incredibly low-energy collection of
footage slapped together like a messy Carnegie Deli sandwich. Every action beat
feels a second too slow, every line is delivered too casually. Director Mikael
doesn’t seem to realize that action movies aren’t just about violence
(which he also shoots poorly), but about keeping the dialogue scenes punchy and
quick. They can be stuffed with clever bon mots and witty exchanges (neither
found here), but adding speedy padding in between confrontations is a
necessity. Hafstrom instead captures these moments as if they are dull
mini-dramas themselves: perhaps Stallone exerted enough force on set to make
sure all his flirty exchanges with Amy Ryan stayed in the film, no matter how
unnecessary. Hafstrom has a pedigree, having directed the box office hit “1408
a long time ago, but clout isn’t worth as much when a camera’s the only thing
protecting you from Stallone’s impressively ‘roided-out frame.

The early scenes
with Stallone and Schwarzenegger are similarly deadening. Chances are, you’ll
be able to wheel out a 95 year old Gene Hackman one day to bring gravitas to
the set. The same can’t be said for the aging Stallone and Schwarzenegger,
neither of whom can generate electricity without the physicality that has long
since left them behind. A good director can work around this: perhaps Walter
, who earlier this year brought a graceful economy of storytelling to
Stallone’s “Bullet To The Head.” Instead, this reminds of Gary Fleder’s
unfortunate “Runaway Jury,” which had the audacity to feature a scene with the
soon-to-retire Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, cramping them inside a men’s room
and turning the entire affair into a shot-reverse shot disaster where you
couldn’t believe the two of them were in the same room together. In the early
moments between Stallone and Schwarzenegger, you don’t even get the pleasure of
seeing their faces together in the frame. When they start throwing fists with
the sort of ferocity that makes someone blow out their back, you can guess at
any given point which one of them was sitting in their trailer while the other
went through the motions.

“Escape Plan” picks
up the more these two appear together, and at about the midway point, you
finally see a flicker of the promise that existed in fans’ heads when they
dreamed of a team-up. Stallone’s always had a vain working-class charm to his
tough guys, and here it’s balanced out by Schwarzenegger’s gregarious
obliviousness. Stallone thinks he’s hiding how big he thinks he is, which has
always been appealing, but Schwarzenegger is nakedly embracing his size, and
for brief moments, even the most pessimistic action fan has to smile at their
creaky chemistry. “Escape Plan” also doesn’t forget that the heroes are only as
good as their villains, and Jim Caviezel adopts a sing-song delivery and
peculiar enunciation to a feature-length Christopher Walken impersonation,
bringing an off-brand menace to his sadistic, nattily-dressed warden. Similarly,
Vinnie Jones is a hoot as a single-minded grunt without a lot of affection for
the muscled duo.

“Escape Plan”
deserves some credit for gradually rising from abysmal to almost-mediocre,
though it’s needlessly complicated in every step of the way. Breslin’s techie
assistance from Ryan and 50 Cent (actually loose and comfortable in a throwaway
role) never really comes into play, a distracting duo that spend the film’s
runtime dopily wondering, “Where’s Breslin?” and generally wasting the audience’s
time. And much is made of the prison doctor played by much-missed Sam Neill,
who mostly contributes to the film by actually having to look up the
Hippocratic Oath. But even when the warden realizes he’s dealing with Breslin,
why does he not realize that the man keeps making a bee-line towards the
towering Austrian in the salt-and-pepper beard? How does no one think these two
should be permanently separated? And why, if the goal is to double cross and bury
Breslin forever, does no one think to just kill him? But disregarding the
competence of Hafstrom and the writing team of Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko,
there’s simply a sad truth: these two stars move like molasses, bones and
joints nearly creaking audibly as they make their way from a prison fence to a
lunch table. A moment where Stallone lifts and suplexes Schwarzenegger is
surely more fantastical than just about anything you’ll see in the next “The Hobbit
movie. There’s a way to make this movie in a way that guarantees its genre excellence.
And the primary strategy there involves a time machine back to 1988. [D+]

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