Wake me up when the guns go bang.
The recent revival of bombastic ’80s action flicks spearheaded by Sylvester Stallone hasn’t been as unwelcome as I thought it would be pre-Expendables. That movie, though unremarkable, is a lot of fun because it’s so honest about what it is–a big, loud, unabashed testosterone parade for people who like watching things go boom. Escape Plan, the newest Stallone vehicle (the fact that the man can still sell tickets on name recognition alone is amazing), directed by Mikael Hafstrom, isn’t fun at all, and exchanges fun, blood-pumping, excessive action for a lame prison-breakout puzzle that we have to watch two oafs (masquerading as geniuses) attempt to solve. Dumb fun is fun, at least. Dumb is just dumb.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who can break out of any prison on earth (he literally wrote the book on prison security). He’s a voluntary jailbird, though; for his (bizarre) job, he’s placed in prisons to break out of them, illuminating for the wardens where the holes in their security systems are. He’s basically a bad-ass security consultant. When an especially high-paying prison-break gig comes along, Breslin embraces the challenge, even though he and his team (Curtis Jackson and Amy Ryan, both virtually inconsequential) are given dangerously little information. Predictably, the mission isn’t what it seems to be–Breslin finds himself in a prison built of technology so advanced it looks alien and, to his surprise, he’s legitimately locked-up.
His escape hinges on a partnership he forms with a fellow prisoner, Emil Rottmayer, played by–wait for it–the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger (he told you he’d be back). From here, we watch the two lugs try every trick in the prison-movie handbook (staged, diversionary fistfights, sharp object hand-offs) to bust out of the maximum-security hellhole, and their faux-intellectual scheming is torturous to sit through. Are we really meant to believe that these inarticulate muscle-heads are calculating masterminds? Don’t get me wrong–I’m almost certain that, in real life, Sly and Arnie are smarter than the average man. But seriously, veiny-armed Sly builds a sextant (an instrument of celestial navigation) out of a pen, a piece of paper, and a pair of glasses. It’s not just the absurdity that’s painful; it’s the fact that I’d much rather watch these guys hit, shoot, and maim things! About two thirds of the film seems to be spent with the dynamic duo plotting out their boring little strategies. We’ve waited decades–DECADES–for these knuckleheads to do a team-up movie, and you give us an hour of hallway walk-and-talks? For shame!
The film isn’t without its high points, though. Whenever Stallone and Schwarzenegger do get to crack some skulls, it’s a thrill that’s half driven by decent filmmaking (Hafstrom’s a solid action director), half by Rambo-nator mash-up nostalgia. Though the sloppy script is working against him, Schwarzenegger puts on an unexpectedly entertaining performance. In one of the only good dialog-driven scenes in the film, he’s allowed to speak German, which astonishingly reveals that when you take away the language barrier, Arnie loosens up and is actually a great performer (gasp!). Jim Caviezel has a lot of fun playing the intellectually dominating, soft-spoken warden. Watching him interact with Schwarzenegger is particularly enjoyable. The shoot-em-up finale is a lot of fun to watch, but it deserves more movie real-estate than it gets. The final set piece is pretty epic, but it ends up feeling anticlimactic after the trudge that is the film’s chubby middle section.
Stallone and Schwarzenegger are occasionally funny together–Arnie’s “You hit like a vegetarian!” line is wonderfully low-brow and hilarious–but they’re best as a pair of ass-kickers, and Hafstrom overestimates the entertainment value of watching them yap. Easily, the film’s biggest thrill comes near its conclusion, in a slow-mo closeup of Schwarzenegger’s eyes as his head turns toward the camera, ready to unleash hell on the bad guys with the giant machine gun he’s just ripped off of a helicopter turret (like only a former body-builder could). If only we’d gotten more of this dude-tacular ridiculousness, this action star team-up-for-the-ages could have been all we ever dreamt it could be. Instead, we get Stallone explaining to Schwarzenegger that toilet water swirls counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere. Wake me up when the guns go bang.