Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel & Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson
Directed by: Mikael Håfström
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Release Date: October 2013
Running Time: 115 minutes
Synopsis: Structural security specialist Ray Breslin is paid to enter high security prisons and escape while highlighting weaknesses in their apparently escape-proof systems. But when he is framed and incarcerated in a prison of his own design which is run by the relentless Warden Hobbes, he has to put his incomparable skills to the ultimate test. However, in order to escape this particular prison he’ll need the help of another insider. Luckily he meets fellow prisoner and old-timer Emil Rottmayer who agrees to help Ray in his escape, but only if Ray agrees to free him while doing so…
Pitted against each other as box office rivals, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone dominated the action blockbuster genre throughout the 80s and 90s. As a result, both actors had an intense rivalry that lasted until the late 90s and the pair eventually established a friendship, resulting in Schwarzenegger having a cameo in Stallone’s love letter to the genre, The Expendables. However, it wouldn’t be until 2013’s Escape Plan that the two big-budget beefcakes would be co-leads in the same movie, and the result is surprisingly more restrained than one might expect. The film could have easily have focused its attention on the ‘gimmick’ of the two sharing the screen together, but it wisely avoids trading upon the actors’ longstanding rivalry and instead focuses on the pair working together to escape from a top-secret super-max prison.
Stallone impresses as Ray Breslin, a security specialist who makes equal use of his brains and his brawn to go into prisons undercover and break out to highlight their flaws. There’s a sense of delight etched into his performance as he seems genuinely seems to enjoy working alongside Schwarzenegger after all these years. The pair have distinctive chemistry as the aging veterans and give the roles some gravitas that would have been lost if it had been given to their more youthful successors, Jason Statham and The Rock, who coincidentally starred in their own co-lead vehicle, Hobbs and Shaw. Schwarzenegger plays the part of Emil Rottmayer with uncharacteristic restraint – there are no pun-laden one-liners (“let off some steam, Bennett”) or over-the-top line readings (“it’s not a tumahhhh”) to be found here. While some may feel disappointed that Escape Plan isn’t a 80s nostalgia-fest celebrating the actors’ cheesiest performances, it actually stands out as a solid prison-break thriller.
Escape Plan feels like Season One of Prison Break condensed into a two-hour movie, and I mean that as a compliment. There is something very striking about seeing the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger powerless in a prison environment after decades of seeing them shoot up criminals without repercussions. Stripping of their strength and placed into a seemingly inescapable prison, the pair are at the mercy of sadistic Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) and his vicious security chief, Drake (Vinnie Jones). Caviezel is simply outstanding in his role as Hobbes here, conveying the warden’s distaste of his inmates and his need for control. He is the perfect foil for Stallone and Schwarzenegger to match wits against, and he lights the screen up with a real energy whenever he appears. Similarly, Vinnie Jones seems to transcend his human form to instead become a vicious pitball in a guard uniform. Both characters are the very epitome of “love to hate” and provide the film with a strong villainous force to balance against its heroic co-stars.
The film also features a number of co-stars in the form of Breslin’s support team, with 50 Cent appearing a role that seemed relatively arbitrary. There’s also Vincent D’Onofrio as Breslin’s business partner, who might as well have “traitor” tattooed on his forehead from the minute he appears on-screen. These scenes outside of the main action within the prison serve to set up the severity of Breslin’s situation as he is abducted and taken to the top-secret prison location. While the film could easily have been considered a brainless prison romp, the script is actually quite layered and there are number of interesting secrets in both Breslin and Rottmayer’s pasts that result in some notable reveals and character development. One of my favourite twists is when Stallone discovers exactly where the prison is located, and while some suspension of belief is necessary, it is a very awe-inspiring sequence and amps up the tension.
As with most prison break films, most of the tension is derived from the planning but the real fun comes from the escape itself and Escape Plan doesn’t disappoint on that front. While the film has less emphasis on the smooth running of the plan than most heist / breakout films, it is an exhilarating escape in seemingly impossible circumstances. The goodwill that the film has built up in its initial two-thirds pays off in its climax as the calm and controlled Warden Hobbes devolves into a frantic madman in his pursuit of his two escapees. The action seems somewhat restrained compared to the bombastic explosions of Commando, Rambo and the pair’s other 80s testosterone-fuelled releases, but it provides a satisfying and cathartic conclusion to the film – especially Caviezel’s final moments.
Escape Plan might not be the high-octane Stallone/Schwarzenegger team-up we all dreamed of in the 80s and 90s, but in some ways I think it is actually better. Both actors have matured – both in terms of their physical bodies and their acting abilities – and this more restrained approach to the genre suits them. While the film may be guilty of underplaying its unique selling point, it instead puts that energy into the intriguing plot and strong characterisation – both of which make Escape Plan into an enjoyable popcorn movie. If you want heaps of nostalgia and those 80s action hero stereotypes, stick to The Expendables franchise where those elements are embraced, because Escape Plan focuses less on its co-leads’ history and relies more on their chemistry to serve up a rock-solid prison break adventure.