A small boy plays bagpipes at the top of a Highland mountain, his caterwauling reverberating across the hazy landscape. A mouse runs to keep up with the majestic form of a lion, before jumping and landing on its head with all the elegance of an Olympic gymnast.
Admittedly, these aren’t scenes from Escape Plan 2: Hades, but rather two of the bewildering array of production company logos that come before it. When the corporate branding is more memorable than the high-kicking action sequel it represents, it’s probably a sign that something’s gone terribly wrong somewhere.
Like Beyond Skyline before it, Escape Plan 2 is another sequel that exchanges production values for copious helpings of martial arts. The first film’s novelty was that it teamed Sylvester Stallone with his old 80s action rival Arnold Schwarzenegger. Escape Plan 2 mislays Schwarzenegger and replaces him with Shu Ren (Huang Xiaming), a new hero who, like Iko Uwais’ protagonist in Beyond Skyline, has never encountered a scenario he can’t solve with a roundhouse kick.
The scenario runs as follows: Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a security specialist who specialises in testing and breaking out of prisons. He has his own boutique company in Atlanta, Georgia, whose staff are dedicated to extracting innocent people from seemingly insoluble hostage situations – though how many of these Breslin needs to pull off a year to keep his company in business is never covered in detail.
The trouble begins when Shu and several other, affordable members of Breslin’s staff are kidnapped and bundled into a place called Hades – an underground prison run by a mysterious figure who calls himself The Zookeeper (Titus Welliver). We quickly learn that Shu was targeted because his cousin, a programming genius, has invented some sort of high-tech satellite system, and the criminals who run Hades want that tech for themselves.
While Breslin paces around his office wondering why so many of his employees are late for work, Shu is forced to fall back on his training; with inmates forced to fight one another for special privileges every other day, he’s keen to figure out how to escape from his maze-like prison before his cousin’s beaten into giving up the secrets of his invention.
Escape Plan was no action classic, but it was a masterpiece compared to this, which looks like a film project that didn’t meet its minimum goal on Kickstarter.The greater share of the $20 million budget, it seems, went on assembling the eye-catching cast; Schwarzenegger’s conspicuous by his absence, but we still have a returning Stallone and 50 Cent (the latter cast as Breslin’s bespectacled computer expert, Hush), while Dave Bautista briefly shows up with a machine gun and flat cap as another one of the good guys.
Like the later Universal Soldier sequels, Escape Plan 2 feels like one of those movies where the starrier members of the cast filmed their scenes within a day or two. Stallone gets a couple of action scenes, but he spends most of the time standing in an industrial building or providing the voice in Shu’s head, offering sage advice about the finer points of organising a prison break.
A more expensive movie – like, say, the original, $54 million Escape Plan – might have been able to give Hades a bit more personality. As directed by Steven C Miller, the jail has all the atmosphere and character of an abandoned bus depot; it largely consists of a handful of sparse cells, dimly-lit corridors and a single atrium where all the fights take place.
Still, the budget at least stretches to some action set-pieces, though they’re awkwardly thrown in between patches of mumbled dialogue; one moment we’re in Hades, watching Shu quietly plotting his escape, the next we’ve cut to another character engaged in a Fast & Furious-style car chase that seems to have arisen out of nowhere.
Evidently constructed to appeal to the growing film market in south east Asia, Escape Plan 2 is a strange hodge-podge of kung fu flick and prison break thriller – the plot even throws a spot of sci-fi into the mix, with robots and artificially intelligent computers awkwardly occupying the background.
Escape Plan 2 is the kind of movie that will likely seem exponentially better depending on how much beer you’ve imbibed and how many friends you’re watching it with. Looked at soberly, it’s something of a chimera, and none of its cheaply-made parts really hang together. It certainly doesn’t provide the ramshackle thrills of director Liam O’Donnell’s Beyond Skyline, which delivered a harebrained, east-meets-west action sequel to far better effect.
Sly’s devoted fans and connoisseurs of chopsocky b-movies may find something to enjoy here; certainly, they may enjoy themselves more than Stallone appears to. Looking sullen and vaguely out of sorts, even the Italian Stallion looks ill-at-ease in this forgettable pot-boiler. Still, at least the logos at the start look quite nice.
Escape Plan 2: Hades is out in UK cinemas on the 20th July.