by Tony Dayoub
I can't ignore that my kneejerk reaction to just about any Sylvester Stallone movie is, "This is gonna be good." So I'm putting that out there. But Escape Plan is just the kind of well-executed high concept thriller that I believe demonstrates how canny the actor's instincts have become, especially in his middle age. Here's a man who didn't listen to casting directors who wanted to pigeonhole him in stereotypical thug roles early in his career, wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Rocky to showcase his leading man potential, then after working with some notable filmmakers got sidetracked by movie star excesses in the 90s before returning to late stardom with The Expendables, a franchise which he humbly shared with action star friends and rivals, figuring that a rising tide lifts all boats.
As it turns out, when one looks back at his filmography, Stallone is always at his best when he is surrounded by a strong ensemble. I'm thinking the policier Nighthawks, my all-time favorite of his where he costars with Billy Dee Williams, Rutger Hauer and others, or more dramatic fare like Copland where he holds his own with Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro. In Escape Plan, Stallone goes toe-to-toe with former box office rival Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose own career has needed a boost after he sidelined himself to pursue politics for nearly 8 years), a move it would have been hard to believe either actor would have agreed to at the peak of their popularity. Yet here they are and, as hokey as it is, Escape Plan is an unashamedly exciting and surprisingly smart thriller.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a consultant and somewhat of an escape artist who advises maximum security prisons on how to fortify themselves against prison breaks. He infiltrates them himself, getting to know their weaknesses, and eventually breaks out. His partner Lester (Vincent D'Onofrio) loans him out to the CIA so he can expose any problems concerning "The Tombs," a secret super-prison the government utilizes for those terror suspects which would have once been subjects of extraordinary rendition. There, Breslin runs afoul of the natty Warden Hobbs (Jim Caviezel)—who designed "The Tombs" using Breslin's own prison handbook as a guide—and his brutal chief guard, Drake (Vinnie Jones) who does dastardly things like tease prisoners stuck in inescapable steel boxes under hot spotlights. It's only with the aid of fellow prisoner Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) that Breslin has a chance of crossing off the 3 things he needs to break out of any prison: know the layout; know the routine; and get help from the inside or outside. Well, looks like he has that last one covered.
Supported by a who's who of character actors—including Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone), Faran Tahir (Iron Man) and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson—Stallone and Schwarzenegger are free to forget about carrying the entirety of Escape Plan on their backs and just engage in the kind of easygoing banter and playful one-upmanship one hopes to get out of this kind of film. They're no Redford and Newman, but it's undeniably engaging to see these two over-the-hill musclemen looking a little craggy and bloated, going up against a villain and henchmen who are taller, stronger, and at times smarter than them, something which at the height of their career I imagine was likely a contractual no-go. Schwarzenegger sports graying temples and a nearly white goatee. Stallone's face looks doughy, while his arms aren't just cut but practically gnarled, a mass of veins twisting around bone like overgrown roots on a tree.
I didn't even get very deep into the twist-filled story which only enhances the engaging byplay of these two fan favorites. Suffice to say that Escape Plan is a lean and lively little thriller. Both stars benefit from burying their sizable egos to participate in a career-boosting reunion likely spun off from their work together in the Champ Pack Expendables series. Let's see more of these kind of B-movie offshoots. Maybe next time we'd get Schwarzenegger/Dolph Lundgren or Stallone/Chuck Norris or Schwarzenegger/Jason Statham or...