Guess who’s baaccckkk? Action-hero legends Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger continue to reinvigorate their respective careers, but this time they are doing it side-by-side in Mikael Håfström’s prison-escape thriller Escape Plan. While borrowing heavily from films like The Game and The Rock, not to mention the FOX television series Prison Break, Escape Plan still feels somewhat “original” when compared to the recycled garbage that usually defines this genre. What makes Escape Plan work is Håfström’s total understanding of audience expectations, especially when it comes to his two mega-star centerpieces. Håfström knows his actors’ best angles, so to speak, and is not shy about showing them off to the fullest extent. Anyone who loves the goofy yet bad-ass entertainment value Stallone and Schwarzenegger bring to the world of cinema will no doubt walk away from Escape Plan feeling fulfilled for the first time in over two decades. Escape Plan is downright hilarious thanks to its two stars, whose chemistry is so strong that the pair deserve their own sitcom spinoff. But more than anything, Escape Plan allows these two masters of muscle and machine to try something new for a change: think. It’s Escape Plan’s braininess that adds a whole new dynamic to this genre, one that often struggles to keep up with the modern era, in which nerds are saving the world with a few keystrokes instead of muscly dudes with machine guns. It’s nice to see Stallone and Schwarzenegger finally entering the 21st century.
Escape Plan, written by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller, centers on Ray Breslin (Stallone), America’s leading expert in prison design and jailbreaks. Breslin has been incarcerated in various prisons for most of his adult life, planted in to test their security systems and make sure they’re absolutely foolproof. No prison seems to be Breslin-proof, however, since the brilliant engineer finds the kinks in every prison, exploits them to the fullest, and escapes so effortlessly that he’s now become a national asset. Breslin’s independent security company, B & C Security, is co-run by Breslin and three highly intelligent individuals: Abigail (Amy Ryan), a field agent who provides outside distractions for Breslin; Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), the team’s computer specialist; and Lester (Vincent D’ Onofrio), a go-between who secures clients for the company.
Following another successful prison-break, Ray Breslin returns to B & C Security headquarters and finds that Lester has landed the biggest client yet: the C.I.A. The operative serving as liaison, Jessica Miller (Caitriona Balfe), offers the team a $5 million dollar contract to test a privately funded, state-of-the-art maximum security prison known as The Tomb. Its location is unknown and Ray Breslin would be going in dark, knowing full well that the prison houses the most dangerous criminals known to man. Because so little information is given upfront, Breslin nearly declines but is persuaded by Lester to take the job.
As you can imagine, things don’t go as planned and Breslin finds himself trapped in the futuristic, vertically designed prison with glass walls replacing steel bars to keep inmates locked up. The prison, set indoors in what appears to be a giant warehouse, is run by the malicious and brutal warden Willard Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), who I am convinced is a distant relative of Machiavelli. The man is a true sadist that gets off by torturing inmates and dangling his power in front of everyone he interacts with. The man also subscribes to Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” mantra, as seen by his hobby of butterfly taxidermy. It’s abundantly clear that Caviezel is having an absolute blast playing such a wretched, deplorable movie villain who loves twirling his invisible mustache. Every. Single. Frame. It’s because of Caviezel’s tongue-in-cheek approach that the character — one with zero redeeming qualities other than being less intelligent than the film’s protagonists — becomes a fun villain for audiences to root against.
Breslin knows he needs someone he can trust on the inside if he wants a shot at breaking out of this hellhole. Thankfully, a guardian angel comes to him in the form of prison-mate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), whose absolute favorite game to play is “20 Questions.” Arnold’s intro drew so much applause that I instantly prayed to any and all deities for Rottmayer to be a character worthy of Arnold’s big-screen persona. Thankfully he is, providing comic relief and slapstick bliss that beautifully contrasts Stallone’s stone-faced seriousness as Breslin. The pair’s exchanges are so spectacularly awkward that you cannot imagine better-written dialogue for these two hallmarks of movie cheese than what’s given. When one-liners like “You hit like a vegetarian!” come out of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mouth and land so successfully (huge laughs throughout — no joke), you know this film is worth the price of admission and then some.
Escape Plan is not without its tragic faults, however. The supporting cast (which also includes Sam Neill as The Tomb’s doctor, who literally has to read the “Hippocratic Oath” again to remind himself of his ethical duties) is mostly disposable aside from Caviezel. One character’s betrayal is so obvious that if you can’t foresee it, you need to go back and take a “Movie Twists 101” class. The film’s ending isn’t as maddeningly dumb as Now You See Me, but it’s close and like the film aforementioned, doesn’t make a lick of sense when you try to piece together the formerly missing story elements. Finally, Escape Plan isn’t going to win any PC awards (and no, I don’t mean People’s Choice), what with its very stereotypical treatment of Muslim characters and the religion of Islam in general. A last-minute attempt to reverse such movie tropes is noble but ultimately too little, too late (an Islam fundamentalist prison inmate Javed, played by actor Faran Tahir, transitions from aggressor to hero).
Overall, though, Escape Plan lives up to its title by providing maximum movie escapism. A wave of nostalgia of the good ol’ days with Stallone and Schwarzenegger washes over anyone who watches, and it’s impossible to resist riding out that wave till the very end. Hilarious, thrilling, fun, and surprisingly engaging from a script level, Escape Plan knows how and precisely when to hit every one of our movie sensibilities for full impact. You’ll walk away with a crooked Han Solo grin, knowing full well that what you saw was ridiculous but charming all the same. Summit Entertainment’s Escape Plan releases nationwide this weekend, so please be sure to give it a shot after reaching your Oscar-bait quota for the week. Here’s the trailer for your viewing pleasure..