Sylvester Stallone should really know better by now than to go anywhere near a prison.
The evil machinations of Donald Sutherland in Lock Up tried to keep him behind locked doors, a rasping set up by Jack Palance in Tango And Cash ensured he spent some quality jail time in the shower with Kurt Russell, an overzealous legal system and Wesley Snipes’ hair resulted in some high tech freeze-incarceration during Demolition Man, and even a young David Caruso tried his luck at getting Sly behind bars in First Blood, which didn’t really end well for anyone.
In Escape Plan, Stallone plays Breslin, who’s an expert at breaking out of secure prisons (which figures, after all his previous experiences) and is “the best at what he does” according to the usual expositional dialogue. We get to witness his unique skills during a slickly put together opening sequence that shows how Breslin achieves what seem like impossible feats, using nothing more than patience, intelligence and, of course, the assistance of his trusty team.
I have to say I was fairly worried about the direction of the film after the first 20 minutes, as the scenes between Breslin and his team (Vincent D’Onofrio, Amy Ryan and Curtis ‘50p’ Jackson) felt incredibly laboured, with no sense of spark and an overreliance on hackneyed dialogue, almost as if they were an afterthought. Thankfully, the odd times we do get more time with Sly’s gang are kept to a minimum, and could quite happily have been left out altogether.
Thankfully, salvation is at hand, as when Breslin finally gets on his way to The Tomb – a high tech super prison and the movie’s original title – the pace, tone and enjoyment level shift up several gears. And the vast majority of that is down to the mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Since Arnie’s recent return to acting, it’s noticeable how much he’s been returning to form with each film. It was great to see him get an expanded role in The Expendables 2, but his lines clanged a little under the weight of being too self-referential, and his delivery didn’t help matters. The Last Stand finally gave him a proper vehicle to relaunch his solo career, which was a riotous amount of fun and has held up well under repeat viewings, yet it failed to set the box office alight and chose to surround Schwarzenegger with a plethora of great actors to help carry any dramatic weight.
In Escape Plan, the only support he has is from Stallone, so there’s little place to hide, but Arnie is not only back on form, he’s almost better than ever. His turn as Rottmayer is a total revelation for longtime fans like myself, as despite the film’s threatening premise, Schwarzenegger puts in a superb comic performance that he clearly relishes and suits him perfectly. Even his physical appearance is a better fit, with signs of greying, a rather fine beard and plain overalls, instead of a reliance on his old trademark spiky hair and muscles.
Action fans need not despair, though, as there’s still plenty of violence amongst the thrills and one-liners, including the long-awaited head-to-head fight between the two legends, which might be short but is utterly satisfying and can’t help but raise testosterone levels, even in the meekest of geeks. In fact, the movie is at its best when focusing in on the two leads, whether it be Arnie’s insane rant in Austrian (brilliant, but strange to hear when he’s spent most of his career hiding his native tongue), or Sly’s quiet moments of contemplation. Needless to say, their combined presence and verbal sparring are what hold the majority of the film together, though it’s a pity that Stallone’s character is so dry, but I suppose one of them had to play it straight for humour’s sake.
The other star of the show is the actual prison set, with its spartan layout, perspex cells and futuristic feel, all patrolled by prison guards kitted out in eerily identical masks. In fact, there are a few aspects of the film’s production that imply that the film started life as more of a horror movie, especially the choice of director Mikael Håfström, who’s no stranger to the genre and brings some early scenes of brutality. The sight of Vinnie Jones kitted out to look like a leather joy boy is also fairly frightening, but for all the wrong reasons.
Of course, no self-respecting prison thriller would be complete without an evil bastard of a warden, and The Tomb’s comes in the fine form of the always underappreciated Jim Caviezel, an actor who has always been able to channel endearing innocence as easily as pure evil. If you still haven’t seen his version of The Count Of Monte Cristo then I’d heavily recommend a watch, as it’s a superb film and a fine example of Caviezel’s duality.
Speaking of great actors, Sam Neill also pops up as a doctor (though no one mentions dinosaurs, sadly) but his part is all too brief and underdeveloped to the point where I’m not even sure what happened to his character by the film’s end, which means it’s either my memory, or the writers just forgot to mention it.
Still, Escape Plan manages to be fun, exciting and thrilling overall – especially when the bullets start flying – and there’s much to enjoy in seeing the two great action legends side by side at long last. It’s a great hark back to the likes of No Escape, Fortress and Death Warrant, where concept, lack of pretensions and a brisk pace make for a great night’s entertainment – and Escape Plan provides exactly that.
Escape Plan is out in UK cinemas on the 18th October.
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