Tuesday, November 12, 2013

ESCAPE PLAN Is Nostalgic, 80's-Style Slice of Cheesy-Awesome


- While the most recent efforts from Sylvester Stallone and a back-to-acting Arnold Schwarzenegger have been met with mostly indifference at the box office, I've got to say: I've really been enjoying this recent spate of late-career action flicks from the two titanic stars. And it annoys me to no end that amidst the endless age jokes, and the weary critical eye from reviewers, some of these legitimately enjoyable films are getting overlooked. Maybe it's Expendables fatigue. Stallone's uber team-up movies have been only-okay at best, and have contained an odd mix of old-school stars with mediocre attempts to emulate modern action movie aesthetics. So yeah, the Expendables movies have yet to 100% live up their potential. But that doesn't mean that they haven't indirectly spawned some worthy films from Stallone and Schwarzenegger. This year alone, Arnold's The Last Stand was a badass, uber-enjoyable action/comedy, and Stallone's Bullet to the Head was a decidedly old-school, hard-nosed effort from Walter Hill. And now, there's ESCAPE PLAN. A dream-team team-up of Sly and Ahnold that, yes, would have been more exciting twenty years ago and pre-Expendables, but still ... for anyone who grew up in (or who has an admiration for) the pumped-up era of 80's action films, this particular pairing is one that's been a long, long time coming.

And you know what? ESCAPE PLAN is cheesy, it's silly, but man, it's entertaining. It's a total throwback film. Yes, Sly and Arnold are older, but the film itself feels right out of 1985. Mostly, that's a good thing. They don't make 'em like this anymore. In the world of Escape Plan, a knockout punch is accompanied by a deadpan one-liner. A handshake between our two stars is filmed, Predator-style, like a meeting of cinematic superheroes. Explosions and gun battles are doled out liberally, with little regard for body count. And when all is said and done, our heroes laugh and walk off into the sunset, freeze-framed into cinematic immortality. What's fun about this film is that it treats the meeting of its two leads as a mega-epic team-up. Sometimes these kinds of movies don't want to overemphasize the pairing of two icons, but that pairing is Escape Plan's raison d'ĂȘtre. The film has no qualms about going big, goofy, and over-the-top. There's absolutely no subtlety in Escape Plan's DNA.

In the movie, Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a master of escape who makes a living by breaking out of maximum security prisons - thus exposing their vulnerabilities and showing where security needs to be beefed up. However, Breslin is faced with nearly insurmountable odds when he's hired to break out of The Tomb - an off-the-books super-max that's outfitted with high-tech cells, and patrolled by masked, anonymous guards who look like rejects from GI Joe's Cobra. To make matters worse, Breslin realizes that there may be more to his stay in The Tomb than meets the eye - namely, this may be less about him testing the facility, and more about him being set up as a fall-guy by his shady employers. Suddenly, Breslin's need to escape is less about doing a job, and more about his very survival.

Breslin's one ally in The Tomb is Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzeneger). Rottmayer is a burly German who is of particular interest to The Tomb's sinister warden, Hobbes (an ice-cold Jim Caviezel). Hobbes believes that Rottmayer has valuable intel on a wanted terrorist (Rottmayer calls him a freedom fighter), and is determined to extract said intel by any means necessary. So Breslin and Rottmayer form an alliance: hatching the titular escape plan by combining Breslin's MacGuyver-esque escape skills with Rottmayer's knowledge of the prison, value to the warden, and of course, brute strength.

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are both a lot of fun here. Stallone is doing a variation on his recent hard-nosed characters in The Expendables and Bullet to the Head, but Schwarzenegger is really doing something interesting. He's got a certain mischievous gleam in his eye that we haven't seen in quite some time, and he plays Rottmayer as funny, almost jovial, despite his dire circumstances. This actually makes for a great chemistry between the two leads - Stallone as the serious one, all business, Schwarzenegger as the quippy troublemaker who will still come through in a jam. What's more, Schwarzenegger actually has some moments where I was flat-out impressed by his acting. One sequence in particular, where he tauntingly screams out German to his captors, in order to avoid revealing sensitive info under duress, is downright awesome. If this is what crazy-old-man Ahnold can offer us in the years ahead, then my god, bring on the crazy old-man roles for Ahnold.

Caviziel is good and properly loathsome as the warden. Sam Neil also appears, lending some bonus gravitas to a small but crucial role as the morally-conflicted prison doctor. Vinnie Jones surfaces as the warden's sadistic enforcer, though he's actually a bit more restrained than per usual. Finally, Amy Ryan is in the mix as Stallone's colleague/sometimes-love-interest. All do a nice job and lend a lot of personality to the film (less impressive: rapper 50 Cent as another, more bland, slightly more useless associate of Stallone's).

Where ESCAPE PLAN stumbles is that its sense of fun is, at times, offset by a hamfistedness that inspires unintentional laughs, and the occasional eye-rolling/face-palm. When Stallone attempts to win the loyalty of Sam Neil by reminding him of his Hippocratic Oath, the film then segues into a melodramatic montage where we see Neil literally reading through a book of medical ethics, deliberating over the Oath. That's one example of several in which the movie - which walks a fine line overall between camp and stupidity - veers wildly into the realm of stupidity. Mostly, there's nothing so offensive that you can't just go with it, but I also think the movie could have benefited from a tad more self-awareness of its own ridiculousness (not too much though - wouldn't want to mess around with the gloriously oblivious 80's vibe).

The other main problem with the movie is that for a movie centered around a high-tech, super-max prison, the design of The Tomb simply isn't all that inspired. Other than a couple of futuristic touches, it feels pretty standard-issue. It feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity for cool visual design. It's funny though, because based on the rather bare-bones design of the prison, I assumed that the entirety of the movie would have sort of a low-budget, B-movie feel. But the producers seem to have saved their dough for the third act, in which we're treated to some surprisingly massive set-piece action scenes that recall 80's-era excess.

Ultimately, Escape Plan feels like a perfect movie to place on one's bookshelf alongside the likes of endlessly watchable 80's Stallone/Schwarzenegger cheese like Commando or Tango & Cash. There's a certain unapologetic aesthetic here that I just find incredibly refreshing in the world of the postmodern action film. Maybe not a new classic - and this won't win over any new converts - but Escape Plan remains a fine bit of nostalgic action escapism, for those who long for the days when action movies and action heroes were truly larger than life.

My Grade: B+

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