Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger would really like it to be the 1980s, or at the very least, the 90s. For Stallone, he had Tango & Cash, Cliffhanger, and Demolition Man. For Schwarzenegger, he had Total Recall, Terminator 2, and True Lies. Over the past several years, they’ve tried to rejuvenate their careers by giving the fans the team-up films they didn’t get 20-30 years ago. Their past outings with The Expendables movies have been straight fan service with Schwarzenegger spouting lines like “I’m back!” Escape Plan is their first real movie together, and while it’s a nice evolution for Schwarzenegger, the movie is caught between playing it straight and acknowledging the goofiness of its premise. It eventually breaks free to embrace its B-movie personality, but it has a hard time getting there.
Ray Breslin (Stallone) is a consultant who breaks out of prisons in order to expose their weaknesses. When the CIA comes to him with an offer to test a new maximum security facility, he takes the offer because, according to his partner Abigail (Amy Ryan), “he’s arrogant and greedy.” But Ray is soon betrayed, kidnapped, and thrown into the prison without his fail safes. He’s at the mercy of the amoral Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), but teams up with the eager Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), in order to escape the state-of-the-art facility.
Schwarzenegger is bent on reviving his acting career, and I hope Escape Plan is the direction he’s willing to take his performances. The Expendables and to a lesser extent The Last Stand are both winking at the audience, and while it’s impossible to forget that you’re watching Arnold Schwarzenegger, we shouldn’t be reminded of his career aspirations while we’re watching his movies. With Escape Plan, he’s clearly having fun, and provides the film’s primary source of intentional comedy. For example, you can tell the actor’s enjoying himself in a scene where Rottmayer lapses into speaking German just to mess with Hobbes.
Sadly, his co-stars don’t fare as well. Stallone is attempts to make Breslin seem aloof and focused, but he comes off as bored. He’s played these kinds of characters before, but this time he’s overshadowed by Schwarzenegger. Then the performances get hilariously bad with Caviezel trying to do prim, detached, and power-tripping, but then he’ll start lapsing into unexpected accents. At one point it sounds like he’s doing a Christopher Walken impersonation. Then there’s Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who is the guy you get when a bucket of rocks is unavailable. He plays a thug/hacker working for Breslin’s company, and you know Jackson’s character is smart because he wears glasses and uses a computer.
These kinds of campy touches would be welcome except director/co-writer Mikael Håfström never seems sure of how far to go. The movie wants to revel in the intricacies of the plan, but the prisons are incredibly dumb. There are smart ideas like having the guards wear masks so that their movements aren’t easily identifiable, but then they’ll have all the prisoners doing recreation at the same time, which doesn’t seem like a great plan if you want to avoid riots. Håfström makes the effort to show how Breslin has a special vision to see the facility as a blueprint, but the character’s background doesn’t line-up with his talent.
There’s the pulse of an early 90s action film running through Escape Plan. The budget is clearly nowhere close to the movies these stars used to command, but it at least wants to tap into Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s glory years when the actor’s muscles were thicker than the plot. There’s really no going back for the film’s stars, and their latest film doesn’t know where to take them, but at least for Schwarzenegger, there might be a way forward.