Escape Plan succeeds where the Expendables movies have failed because it doesn’t just bring iconic ’80s action stars together, it actually gives them something to do. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing smarter-than-they-look muscle-heads, aren’t exactly stretching their range as actors here, but they’re not just reciting their old catchphrases, either. Sly punches a lot of dudes, Arnold fires a gun, they both deliver lines that are supposed to be humorous but aren’t — and hey, what do you know, there’s a story too! It’s almost the team-up movie you wanted 25 years ago, kind of!
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, the best there is at his chosen profession. That profession: testing prisons’ security protocols by getting incarcerated and seeing if he can escape. He has a 100 percent success record. “He is able to break out of any prison designed by man,” says his slick business partner, Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio). Ah, but what if you put him in a prison designed by the Devil?? That’s not what Escape Plan is about, but oh man, what if it were??
It’s not far off, actually. Ray is hired by the CIA to test a secret, off-the-grid facility meant to hold the world’s nastiest terrorists and saboteurs, the sort of prison that doesn’t allow visitors, doesn’t care about human rights, and technically, from a legal standpoint, does not exist. Ray’s accomplices, tech wizard Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and I’m-not-sure-what-her-job-is Abigail (Amy Ryan), advise against it. The CIA wants him to go TOTALLY undercover, without even a tracking device so his team can keep an eye on him and extract him if necessary. But the money is good, and Ray is bold, and so here we are in Super Prison.
The warden, a fastidious and well-dressed sadist named Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), is quick to make things difficult for Ray (who’s here under a fake name and backstory), and Ray is just as quick to get himself put in solitary so he can figure out how to escape. Meanwhile, he’s befriended by a fellow inmate, one Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), a congenial, smooth-talking (well, for Schwarzenegger) techno-terrorist who is unusually nosy when it comes to Ray’s personal business.
You will not be surprised — not nearly as surprised as Ray is, anyway — to learn that there’s more to Super Prison than meets the eye, and that ulterior motives were involved in putting him here. Can he escape from what he now realizes is a far more dangerous situation than he signed up for? No? What about with Rottmayer’s help? What about then?
Let me be clear about something: Escape Plan is nonsense. The logistics and location of the secret prison are ludicrous, and the whole conspiracy, once everything is revealed, is about three twists more complicated than it needs to be. (The screenplay is credited to Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko.) There’s a conscience-stricken prison doctor (Sam Neill) who decides to help Ray after reading a book called “Medical Ethics” that contains a copy of the Hippocratic Oath. A Muslim prisoner (Faran Tahir) proves useful in an amusing, dumb fashion. Now and then we cut back to Amy Ryan and 50 Cent panicking because they don’t know where Ray is, with 50 Cent clattering away on a computer keyboard and then dramatically announcing that he can’t find any information.
But the movie works for two major reasons. One, the ever-changing details of Ray’s on-the-fly escape plan are fun to watch unfold. No matter how ridiculous things get, dammit, you want to see how they’re gonna do it, and director Mikael Hafstrom (The Rite, 1408) keeps things bouncing even when there’s not much physical action.
Furthermore, Stallone and Schwarzenegger are…well, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Say what you will about these guys — that they’re inarticulate, for example, or that they’ve both made an unconscionable number of bad movies — but when they’re energized by a lively story and fully committed to what they’re doing, they become conduits of pure movie star charisma. Escape Plan isn’t quite over-the-top enough to be a cheesy classic, nor is it legitimately good enough to be wholly respectable. But as a Saturday matinee about two old guys proving they’ve still got what it takes to kill some bad guys? You could do a lot worse.
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