Film Review: ESCAPE PLAN
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Starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson
Screenplay by Miles Jackson and Jason Keller
Directed by Mikael Hafstrom
Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, alas, have made their share of dunderheaded, dumbed-down B-movies that aren’t even worth a second viewing on a slow, rainy afternoon while you’re stuck at home nursing the flu. So it is with a full admission that some folks approached their latest effort, “Escape Plan” with doubts, second thoughts and worries that this would be just another inane, moronic cookie-cutter action-adventure thriller with little intelligence and lots of explosions, fist fights and gunfire.
So it was quite surprising to walk out of “Escape Plan” pleasantly surprised, thoroughly entertained and, yes, somewhat amazed, that the film is not just another cookie-cutter film, but a a film that is actually pretty good and fun for an action-adventure thriller—and a film that is ably helped along by a clever, inventive, original and intricately detailed script; an interesting and gripping storyline; taut and tight and deftly-paced directing; and, again, surprisingly confident, assured and physical acting by Stallone and Schwarzenegger, who appear just as they are—some very physically fit, yet somewhat world-weary, older guys who come across here as actually smart, insightful, clever and level-headed!
That means they are not just lumbering, single-syllable-muttering Mack trucks barreling over and through and on top of everything in their way, muttering toss-off one-liners every ten minutes instead of intelligent dialogue, and killing everything in their way with incredibly loud machinery and weaponry. There is indeed a nod to these types of scenes near the end in “Escape Plan,” but guess what? That single scene is composed, written, blocked and directed with a knowing, insightful, smart nod and wink to such past escapades, and the knowing, somewhat snarky and sarcastic approach to the scene is so smart, you enjoy the gunfire and explosions—but with a smart, intelligent, inside-joke approach that smoothly elevates the scene to smart filmmaking and just not run-of-the-mill action movements.
And that is exactly what you get throughout “Escape Plan”—smart filmmaking, and an approach to action adventure without any pretentious pretending that you’re making some grand social, political and cultural statement—which was exactly one of the main problems that slightly sunk the lofty goals of last week’s still-watchable “Captain Phillips.” But it’s fascinating to note, accurately, that “Escape Plan,” without lofty social and political goals, actually succeeds as entertaining, satisfying entertainment on a more successful level than the too-serious “Captain Phillips.”
The success of “Escape Plan” starts with the script—one of those puzzle-type stories that will cause you after viewing the movie to wonder, “How on earth did they come up with that?” The script and story by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller is original, gripping, suspenseful and clever—with not just the basic storyline to follow, but, as the story unfolds, several smooth layers of underlying deals, double-dealing, double-crosses, and psychological mind games that will have viewers not just paying attention, but wondering just who is “playing” whom, and just exactly who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. This layer of puzzling puzzles and mind games adds another clever aspect to an already clever basic story, thus also adding to the rising suspense that keeps the film, and your adrenaline, running straight to the final scenes.
“Escape Plan’s” original and inventive script focuses on Ray Breslin, a former prosecutor who runs a highly-specialized private security company that tests the reliability of maximum-security prisons. Breslin actually enters the prisons, studies their designs and architecture and layouts and security plans, and devises ways and methods to break out of the prisons. The story explains that he has broken out of several high-level, supposedly foolproof maximum-security facilities. One notable aspect of Stallone’s performance here is that despite obviously living through some of the worst living conditions anyone could imagine—stark cells, brutal inmates intent on harming, maiming or even killing other inmates, terrible food, horrendous living conditions in general, and brutal, violence-prone, sadistic prison wardens and guards—Stallone’s character remains confident, defiant, tough, confident and assured. It’s a measure of the character’s intelligence, and the filmmaker’s respect for the character’s innate intelligence, that Breslin never breaks down, complains, or suffers too much, even while withstanding the worst of horribly violent and, again, sadistic prison conditions. When the character remains confident, intelligent and strong throughout these conditions, the viewer subsequently gains faith in the character and supports the character—and learns to respect and honor the character’s intelligence.
That may seem to somewhat dim the suspense—when you have that much confidence in the character, you may be pre-conditioned to know that the character will survive and live through his ordeals—but in the assured, fun and still-suspenseful context of “Escape Plan,” the suspense is not dulled by your assurance that Breslin will be victorious. In fact, that confidence in Breslin merely helps propel the film forward in an entertaining manner—throughout the film, you are pushing and hoping that Breslin will use his inherent smarts to devise that escape plan and, indeed, emerge victorious.
Breslin, having cracked the security systems of several of the most secure prison facilities in the world, is approached by a CIA agent who wants Breslin to infiltrate, and subsequently break out of, a black-operations, secretive, private and quite illegal and horrendously maximum-security facility that houses the world’s worst criminals, mugs, pugs, thugs and deviants, to borrow from Hedley Lamarr. The facility is so secretive, Breslin and his company’s co-workers, ably portrayed by the pretty and smart Amy Ryan (an actress who deserves more and better roles by Hollywood), the always-watchable and chameleon-like, slimy and scaly Vincent D’Onofrio, and a not-so-great Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who’s acting isn’t that strong, but in a small, supporting role, it doesn’t bring down the film), aren’t even given the prison’s location or name or layout or owners. In a meeting pre-arranged by the CIA, Breslin is simply, scarily picked up by a black van, drugged and blacked out—and then he awakens in the secure facility.
Once there, inside the secretive, futuristic, high-tech maximum-facility prison, Breslin portrays a terrorist bomber with another name, Portis, and is completely on his own. He has no way to contact his co-workers, he has no one to work with on the outside, he knows no one inside the prison, he has no friends on the inside—and he doesn’t even know where he is or who is running the prison. It’s a desperate, harrowing and quite scary situation—and an original invention and convention for an action-adventure film. Immediately, the viewer, along with Breslin, starts to wonder just how Breslin will crack this seemingly indestructible fortress. But, again, it’s a credit to the likeability, intelligence and expertise of Breslin and the inherent smartness of the script, that, bit by bit, play by play, ploy by ploy, Breslin uses his considerable skills, expertise, intelligence, psychological knowledge and cleverness—and, yes, physicality—to slowly break down the evil warden (a wonderfully slimy, smarmy, snaky and creepy Jim Caviezel as the sadistic, cold-hearted and greedy criminal warden Hobbes), the masked and armored and equally sadistic guards (headed by an equally slimy and scary Drake, strongly played by Vinnie Jones), the humanistic doctor (a strong and multi-layered and compassionate Sam Neill), and, of course, fellow inmates.
Among those fellow inmates are the apparently decent, smart and likeable Rottmayer (again, another surprise—ably, strongly and confidently portrayed by Schwarzenegger in one of his better performances that actually approaches and succeeds in reaching real acting), and the deeply-religious and, eventually, likeable and decent Javed, likeably played by Faran Tahir. Together, like constructing and then deconstructing a puzzle, Breslin forms an in-house alliance with Rottmayer, Tahir and others and he starts to formulate his escape plan from the mysterious, strange and, again, seemingly indestructible and inescapable high-tech facility.
The enjoyment in “Escape Plan” is watching what, precisely, Breslin actually does to form his plan and break out of this monstrous facility. The puzzle theme is not lost on the scriptwriters or filmmakers—high-tech imagery of the mystery prison, and other facilities, are often portrayed as huge puzzles; in one scene, Breslin solves a puzzle being worked on by Jackson’s character in about ten seconds; and various puzzles can be seen sneakily placed in the sets of several scenes. If you like puzzles—and who really doesn’t—the puzzle theme adds to the fun and cleverness of “Escape Plan.” Again, you continually wonder as the film advances, “How did they think of that?!” And if you’re wondering that though during an action-adventure thriller film, then you know that that film is worlds ahead of, and above, about 99 percent of most other standard action-adventure thrillers.
Schwarzenegger, to me, has never really been a great actor. He’s succeeded, alas, at his best in films in which he relies mostly on his physical, athletic and acrobatic presence, looks and abilities, such as John Milius’ classic “Conan the Barbarian” (1982) and the first three excellent “Terminator” films (1984, 1991 and 2003). That’s not being mean, snotty, negative or cruel—the history of film and television and even theater is full of actors who were never really great actors, but did indeed have a special presence that shines on film or on stage, endears the actors to fans, and, yes, contributes to successful films, television shows and stage productions. It’s not taking anything away from Arnold, who should be respected for his various successes in film and politics (he was elected Governor of California for two terms, it must be noted, and his films have made literally billions of dollars worldwide for thirty years now, it also must be noted).
However, in “Escape Plan,” for various reasons, Schwarzenegger delivers one of his most assured, confident, pleasing, theatrical (in a good way), and, yes, once again, smart performances. His character, Rottmayer, like Stallone’s Breslin, is explained, portrayed and displayed as someone with real, actual, deep intelligence in areas other than guns, fistfights and military tactics. They are, simply, smart men. And when you tell the audience, explain to the audience, and display to the audience in a clever manner that your two leads are smart, intelligent men who can use their minds as well as their fists, heads and weapons, you do raise the level of enjoyment in an action-adventure film. One of the best comparisons is Stallone’s and Schwarzenegger’s friend Bruce Willis’ four-time successful portrayals of the equally smart, clever and likeable John McClane in the first four “Die Hard” films (the fifth was terrible, so ignore that one). Additionally, Caviezel’s excellent portrayal of Hobbes can also be respectfully compared to Alan Rickman’s evil villain portrayal in the first “Die Hard,” Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of the villain in”Die Hard: With a Vengeance,” and Timothy Olyphant’s villain in “Live Free or Die Hard.”
In “Escape Plan,” Schwarzenegger is using his face, his eyes, his innate physicality, and even his voice to portray a character, that, much like Breslin, seems to rise above his surrounding conditions, and appears to be smarter than just your average, everyday criminal. And, like with Breslin, the audience also starts to root for Rottmayer to also escape these conditions, overpower Hobbes and Drake, and escape in a successful manner. In the credits of “Escape Plan,” there are credits for an acting coach for Schwarzenegger and a person credited with the “look” of Rottmayer. This shows some basic depth to filmmaking—and some detailed attention paid to Schwarzenegger’s basic acting in the film, and to his basic look. It may seem obvious, but when you add professionals to aid one of your actors with on-set acting and his character’s overall look, you should come away with an above-average performance, and that is what you actually get from Schwarzenegger in this film.
You get the same high level from Stallone, who, again, remains sly, assured, confident, smart and level-headed throughout the film.
And, yes, you can actually pick up on, view and feel a strong chemistry between the two actors in their scenes together—Stallone and
Schwarzenegger actually appear to be enjoying themselves, enjoying each other’s company, and enjoying working together and acting together in this film. Perhaps both of them realized early on that they were working with an above-average script and story, and some confident directing by Mikael Hafstrom. Hafstrom keeps things moving, but not too fast, not too crazed, and he’s clever enough to focus not always so much on dumb, gratuitous action and violence, but on the puzzle-like aspects of the script. And, once again, but it’s worth noting repeatedly, Hafstrom is smart enough to accentuate the intelligence of his characters, and making them sympathetic to the audience, thus instilling an interest in their success—and survival.
As with the “Die Hard” films—I would easily, strongly recommend repeated viewings of the first four “Die Hard” films—when you combine the basic aspects of real filmmaking—a strong script and story; assured and confident directing; strong and intelligent and likeable portrayals of your lead characters; and a modern, futuristic, high-technology production design; along with, yes, some action and adventure that actually connects to the plot, you end up with an above-average, fun and entertaining action-adventure thriller. And, yes, I would recommend repeating viewings of “Escape Plan” in the future on those rainy days when you are stuck at home nursing the flu. “Escape Plan” ends up being a film that is just what the doctor ordered.