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Non-Review Review: Escape Plan

Escape Plan doesn’t demand too much. It doesn’t demand too much from its lead actors, and it doesn’t demand too much from its audience. A film about watching two of the biggest action stars of the eighties teaming up should be a celebratory occasion – a trip down memory lane, one last go-around for old time’s sake as we watch this dynamic duo escape a mysterious “off the grid” prison which seems quite like the place I imagined all eighties action stars go in the end.

Instead, Escape Plan feels like the middle section of John Woo’s Face/Off extended out to a two-hour feature film, the story of a man who shouldn’t be in prison forced to escape from a futuristic science-fiction gulag through a series of overly-elaborate action set-pieces. There is, quite frankly, not enough here to support the movie’s extended runtime, with the script never daring to swerve sharply away from expectations or clichés. Escape Plan delivers exactly what the premise promises, but nothing more and never with anything approaching enthusiasm.

Old-timer hard-timers...

Old-timer hard-timers…

Like Arnie’s last attempt at a career revival, the incredibly bland Last Stand, Escape Plan dances around the elephant in the room. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are not in the prime of their careers – they are older, but not necessarily wiser, than they used to be. The best films of the recent Stallone revival – Rocky Balboa and Rambo – both acknowledge the passage of time, and show an actor coming to terms with the fact that he’s no longer a hot young action star who can claim to be one of the biggest leading men on the planet. Escape Plan lacks that self-awareness.

The closest the script comes to acknowledging this radical change in circumstance for the two leads is during a surprisingly effective back story, as Stallone’s character provides a fairly predictable explanation for why he does what he does. It’s a fairly obvious plot beat, but it’s executed with considerable skill. The script doesn’t over-write the moment, and Stallone plays the scene with a tenderness that reminds us he can be a capable actor if given the right material. For that brief moment, it almost seems like Escape Plan is a movie about characters.

"Have the lambs stopped screaming?"

“Have the lambs stopped screaming?”

Sadly, it’s the exception that proves the rule. The rest of Escape Plan is bland paint-by-numbers fare, as we watch our two leads throw around younger characters as if they were made of pillows – even trained ex-military types at swatted like flies by our heroes. There’s never a moment of weakness or reflection, never a hint that either lead character is doing anything that their body can’t do as well as it used to. Escape Plan feels like a move that could easily have come from the hey-day of Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s silver screen careers.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be an exceptional entry for either actor. Both performers are capable of more than their detractors give them credit for, but they are best used as tools rather than actors – evoking a particular mood or sensibility than portraying a broad range of emotion. In Escape Plan, for example, Schwarzenegger is cast against type as a political prisoner with some weird links to a techno-anarchist organisation – sort of like a muscle-bound Julian Assange. However, Schwarzenegger’s range here consists of growing a goatee.

Closing the file on this one...

Closing the file on this one…

Escape Plan has a fairly simplistic arc. It’s all there in the title. The script contains precious few twists and turns. In fairness, some of this is a blessing – for example, the film plays fair during the duo’s planning stages, never trying trick the audience into thinking the movie will pit the two against one another. There are no obvious moles or betrayals or complications that exist to pad out the runtime. Instead, everything flows in a straight-line.

When the film wants us to know that not everything is on the level, it has the bad guys kill an unarmed civilian and throw him out of a helicopter. When it wants us to appreciate how creepy and serene the warden is, we cut to him preserving butterflies. The film’s big twists all feel very familiar – very safe. The first big twist feels like a nod to the prison premise from Face/Off, which seems to have been an influence here. The second twist is so straight-forward that one character actually remarks, “You should have seen that coming.”

Scratch that...

Scratch that…

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. After all, Stallone and Schwarzenegger both built careers on actions that follow clear formulas and straight arcs. There’s a tendency to celebrate the exceptional and stronger films from both actors, ignoring that a significant quantity of their output was purely functional – in the same way that Escape Plan is purely functional. It’s the same problem that plagued Stallone’s work on The Expendables, which wound up being a perfect photocopy of a generic eighties action movie, instead of a celebration of eighties action movie nostalgia.

The problem is that this doesn’t really justify two hours. There’s a tighter movie in here, one a bit more focused and a bit more fun. I couldn’t help noticing how generic and crude the one-liners were. While Schwarzenegger was once the king of terrible puns and questionable wordplay, at least there was some measure of endearingly cheesy wit. Here, his character’s banter and humour consists of anatomical references and insinuations about the mothers of other characters. It feels a bit blunt, as if Escape Plan isn’t really having fun with any of this.

Tomb raiders...

Tomb raiders…

To be fair, Jim Caviezel does good work in his role as the prison’s shady warden. Taking an under-written part, Caviezel wisely chooses to underplay the villainous role – realising that a sinister whisper can be more effective than a roar of desperation. There’s just a note of camp about Caviezel’s interpretation of the character, playing a brutal sadist who really seems like he thinks he has more important things to be doing. It works well in contrast to the larger screen presences playing opposite him.

Escape Plan is pretty much exactly what the premise promises, but without any real energy or enthusiasm.

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