Schwarzenegger, Spirited Third Act Make "Escape Plan" Worthwhile

Dear devotees of finely drawn, understated cinema – here’s your exit. This is “Escape Plan,” a cinematic universe in which Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger play geniuses. Those that can’t get on board with such a conceit are advised to remain in port. But for anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by the film’s high concept, intriguing supporting cast, and its two leads sharing top billing for the first time ever, the answer is “yes.” “Escape Plan” is – warts and all – worth the price of admission.

Stallone stars as Ray Breslin, a former lawyer who specializes in identifying structural weaknesses in prisons. The catch is that he does it from the inside – being locked up for a living and trying to escape. The film opens on Breslin mid-prison break – Stallone appearing as gruff as ever – and he’s soon on the outside looking in, with the help of some accomplices (Amy Ryan, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). Shortly thereafter, Breslin is recruited by the CIA to try his hand at a private Supermax-type prison. At the urging of his boss (Vincent D’Onofrio), Breslin agrees.

After a quick, messy abduction, our hero finds himself entrenched in a vast, dark lair filled with glass cells and masked prison guards. Jim Caviezel amusingly plays the prison’s warden as a real-life Dick Dastardly, stopping just short of mustache twirling (if only because he doesn’t have one). It’s a welcome, knowing take on the archvillain stereotype of 80s action pictures. Breslin, realizing he’s in mortal danger, quickly, if reluctantly, makes friends with a graying, goateed inmate, Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), and the two begin devising a way out.

Acting-wise, Stallone doesn’t bring much to the table here, leaning on his granite-like demeanor to anchor the plot’s sillier machinations. The screenplay – by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller – is a double-edged sword in that it’s an enormously dumb story masquerading as a smart one. Twists abound, and it’s curiously hard to follow at times. But its playfulness allows for one of the picture’s biggest surprises.

That surprise is Schwarzenegger’s performance, one that (take this as you will) suggests his best acting days are ahead of him. He’s incredibly lively in the role, far more invigorated than he was in his recent big screen appearances, and he seems to be having a blast as second banana to a brooding Sly. A scene in which he speaks his first language (German) stands up amongst his best work. It’s Arnold’s charm that sees the film through its bumpy midsection, keeping things afloat until we get to the wildly crowd-pleasing third act.

Ultimately, the pic succeeds in spite of Mikael Hafstrom’s direction. The movie is drearily shot and none of its performers seem to be on the same page (including the underrated Sam Neill in a thankless supporting role as a prison doctor). There’s no good reason for Hafstrom to stage the dialogue-oriented scenes as listlessly as he does – watch out for some extreme close-ups – and it doesn’t help that most of these scenes hinge on the kind of showmanship that Stallone isn’t known for. The script certainly isn’t high art, but that it takes so long to build up a head of steam comes down to shortsightedness on the part of the director – albeit shortsightedness that’s partially remedied by the pyrotechnics of the finale.

That finale – a glorious 30 minute stretch of preposterousness that will have action fans on their feet – is as good as anything its stars have done in decades, and it saves the film from itself. While Schwarzenegger is the only reason to watch the first two thirds of the film, there are plenty of reasons to watch its closing act. The picture suddenly shifts into a gear that it had previously concealed, and what follows is pure kinetic overload. Shootouts, explosions, and high-flying stunt work abound. Only the minor overuse of CGI disappoints.

Despite taking a clunky route to its destination, “Escape Plan” ultimately makes good on its promise of joining Stallone and Schwarzenegger together in unapologetic machismo-fueled mayhem. Despite its flaws – including some half-assed political commentary – few audience members will feel shortchanged and even fewer will regret the experience. It’s been a similarly bumpy road back to the spotlight for the film’s stars, but their leading man capabilities are as clear as ever. Arnold, especially. Now, onto “The Expendables 3.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: October 18, 2013
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Screenwriter: Miles Chapman
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Vinnie Jones, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Amy Ryan
MPAA Rating: R (for violence and language throughout)