739It's taken far too long to get these two action icons to pair up. This is the fifth decade that they've been in the business and yet they hadn't even shared a single scene together until Arnie's Expendables cameo. Now we finally get the screen pairing that fans would have died for back in the eighties/nineties - remember Stallone/Snipes Demolition Man or even Van Damme/Lundgren Universal Soldier, well Stallone/Schwarzenegger Escape Plan would have topped them all. Back in the day.
Things have changed though.These two got old. Sure, everybody does, but actors try extra hard not to. And action actors? Well they can't afford to. Credit to Stallone, he has made an unfathomable comeback - plenty of actors make latter-life comebacks in their 60s, but nobody makes action comebacks at that age! - and, magically, he looks like he has brought Schwarzenegger with him. But don't expect the raw energy and physical presence that these two commanded back in the day; things have changed.
Thankfully Escape Plan does not merely rely on more traditional mindless action-violence to maintain your attention over the duration, instead playing out as more of an elaborate prison break thriller as opposed to the kind of pure actioner that these good old boys used to do best. No surprise, really, that a movie called Escape Plan is about a prison break, but fans may still be expecting something different from what they get. The surprise is not such a bad thing though.
What's it about?Ray Breslin is a world-renowned prison escape artist. He breaks out of prisons for a living, testing the security of dozens of Government establishments across the country. His latest assignment involves a high-tech prototype prison that the CIA wants to use to hold the world's most dangerous criminals - without trial. They want Ray to make certain that it is impregnable. But there's a catch - he can't have contact with his team on the outside and nobody can know the location. As soon as Ray gets locked up in the fortress he realises something's not quite right, but it's too late for him to call for help. Set up and left to rot, it's only thanks to the unlikely help of another inmate, Rottmayer, that he manages to hold it together and revert to doing what he does best: planning his escape.
"You tell whoever put me in here: I'm gonna' burn this place to the ground!"
What Escape Plan lacks in bulging biceps, blunt force trauma storytelling and sheer bombast, it attempts to make up for in considered plotting and welcome character beats. This exchange is not wholly successful, and does not deliver us something quite as viscerally satisfying as you might have hoped for from these two action giants, but it does provide some surprisingly thoughtful escapism, which suits a new generation of moviegoers who largely want more than just a bang for their buck.
Indeed the film probably has far more in common with Stallone's explosives expert thriller The Specialist than with his Expendables outings or, for that matter either of this year's offerings from the two giants: Schwarzenegger's frivolously entertaining The Last Stand and Stallone's more efficiently brutal Bullet to the Head. Don't just expect more of the same.
It takes a good while for any hint of action to enter the picture, with the first act devoted to establishing Stallone's professional prison breaking credentials before landing him in a place which, seemingly, is escape-proof. Even the first contact between Stallone and fellow inmate Schwarzenegger, is prone to half-hearted hitting-like-a-vegetarian action, and we go back to more 'how does he plan to get out of here' plotting. Indeed, even if the change of pace and substitute of action beats for story and plot beats takes a whole to warm to, the devotion to storytelling is commendable, leaving us innately invested in the grand schemes of these two charismatic heroes. This could have easily devolved into standard shoot 'em up / punch 'em up shenanigans in the vein of the prison escape movies from (admittedly enjoyable) actioners like Face/Off or Stallone's own Tango & Cash, but they largely avoid this until the final act, instead relying on a playing-the-long-game approach which sees then locked in a battle of wits with an expected lay sadistic warden who has literally read the book on prison escapes, and has specifically designed his prison to be unbreakable.
Whilst it seems risky to rely to heavily on plotting in a movie where Stallone and Schwarzenegger - once, and probably to some extent still, the world's biggest action heavyweights - finally get equal billing, but thankfully the two still prove to be charismatic enough to pull it off. In fact, whilst Stallone has been celebrated for remaining at the top of his game in spite of his age, and Schwarzenegger has, by comparison, struggled somewhat in his post-political comeback (The Last Stand may have been two steps forward in this respect, but it was also one step back in revealing that the Austrian Oak may no longer have what it takes), it's Arnie who proves the hidden gem in this mix.
Indeed whilst joint billing clearly doesn't equate to equal screen-time - we follow Stallone's escape artist for the majority of the proceedings - there's an undeniable spark of much-needed energy injected into the mix every time Arnie pops up; the lumbering juggernaut who was once renowned for his less-is-more approach to dialogue now proving easily the most memorable ingredient in the mix - the 'feigning insanity' sequence is probably one of the best scenes he's done in years, cleverly adopting his native German dialogue for a far more natural-sounding rant (Van Damme adopted similar tactics with his native French, to similar effect, and even Seagal briefly proved himself more engaging in Japanese, which he's spoken fluently since he was a teenager).
Credit to a Stallone, he's quite happy to provide the backbone to the proceedings and then bathe in the shadow of his co-star whenever the need arises, indeed it's the strength of the story and of Stallone's understated central performance than allows Scwarzenegger to shine. Supporting actor decisions were far less sensible, however, and for all the good that the lead pair do; for all the competent support that the likes of Jim Caviezel (in an undercooked performance as the nasty warden) and Sam Neill (as the sympathetic prison doctor, provide; the likes of Vinnie Jones and Fifi Cent threaten to pull you right out of the movie. Sure, Vincent D'Onofrio is utterly wasted in his unconvincing role as one of Breslin's partners, but at least he's not a terrible actor - a category which the other two seem more than prepared to fit into. Even Vinnie's trademark thuggery is unconvincing here, and it's disappointing that he couldn't even give life to a simple 'sadistic prison guard' role. And Fifi is just a pain to watch - I've seen better acting from one of Gerry Anderson's old Thunderbirds puppets, ironic considering Fifi's patented minimalistic jaw movement during speech makes him look like one.
The Last StandStill, Arnie and Sly save the day and, between the two, not only prove that there is some life left in their old bones (the loving tribute wielding-a-mounted-machine-gun sequence is an absolute blast), but that they're capable of something smarter than their average fare. Here's hoping that the two of them continue to assault the cinemas for a good few years to come and that Arnie, who is still a few steps behind his brother-in-arms, finally makes the full-throttle comeback that we're all hoping for from him. Escape Plan is certainly a hearty stride in the right direction.
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