“Escape Plan” is the first film to feature both A-list ’80s action gods, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, in starring roles. Forget the action-fantasy “The Expendables” and its sequel; those were Stallone’s films. Here, the two share top billing and a nearly equal amount of screen time. And it’s with that shared time one can see the wisdom of keeping the duo apart.
That’s not to say “Escape Plan” doesn’t have its charms. In fact, they’re ample, with both stars, particularly Schwarzenegger, allowed to chew scenery and practice their individual sorts of macho swagger that made them iconic screen presences. But their styles are at odds when compared directly, as Stallone’s stone-faced hyper-competence mixes awkwardly with Schwarzenegger’s sardonic übermensch. The characters may be similarly invulnerable, but they’re on different planets, tonally.
Stallone, who has been taking his career a lot more seriously than Schwarzenegger has his lately, plays the de facto hero, Ray Breslin, a genius whose specialty is breaking out of prisons to test their security. His profession allows for a smartly crafted opening that begins the film with a bang, as Ray not only slips out of the isolation unit of a maximum security prison, but then shows us how he did it.
It’s a setup that suggests a cleverer-than-usual action movie, but it quickly becomes clear that the filmmakers’ brains were front-loaded. Ray soon finds himself thrown into The Tomb, a high-tech, secret prison run by a casually sadistic warden (Jim Caviezel). It’s a rough place to break out of, with vertically-stacked, transparent cells made of bulletproof glass, stormtrooper-like guards with covered faces, and isolation cells that blast inmates with blinding light. A neat story touch: The complex was designed using Ray’s own book on prisons as a guideline, meaning that it’s essentially escape-proof to anyone but him.
There, Ray meets Emil (Schwarzenegger), an Austrian prisoner apparently among the facility’s most valuable (why they’d let him congregate with hundreds of dangerous scumbags is a good, unanswered question). The two quickly initiate a plan to bust out, which ultimately involves a little sneaking around and a lot of gunfire.
Stallone effectively takes the lead, approaching the role with wholehearted seriousness. It’s no surprise, then, that Schwarzenegger’s performance has been the most critically praised feature of the film, with its unabashed playfulness and killer comic timing. But the aforementioned tonal dichotomy between the two actors’ work comes into play, meaning that, though fun to watch, they don’t have much chemistry other than the artificial kind manufactured by their places in cinematic history.
Although surprisingly dense, the story is predictably nonsensical, with sneaky deals and insidious betrayals liberally layered on top of one another. The midsection contains more flab than one would ever catch on Sly or Arnold’s bodies, dragging out the proceedings with unnecessary plot development and hitting that unfortunate point where it’s too serious for a silly action movie but too straightforward to qualify as pleasantly breezy.
Eventually, there is a 35-minute stretch where most of your attention is focused on fantasizing about how the climax will end up, and with it comes a breakout that sees our heroes go on a killing spree in their attempt to unseal The Tomb. It’s a red meat and potatoes sequence, one that seems to aim for self-parody when dramatically zooming in on Schwarzenegger’s eyes just before he rips a mounted machinegun off its post and cuts down a few dozen guards. But when it comes to staging the action scenes, director Mikael Håfström is a long way from James Cameron (or even Stallone himself), giving the sequence a cheaper look than the film’s $70 million budget suggests, a stumble that’s essentially unforgivable considering the subject matter.
The supporting cast features a number of names, including Caviezel, Sam Neill, Amy Ryan, and Vincent D’Onofrio, who provide some much-needed respectability to their roles. There’s also Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as Ray’s tech guru, a part that suggests the rapper should stick to something he’s good at, like investing in overpriced water.
This year has already seen the release of “The Last Stand” and “Bullet to the Head,” both ultra-violent action films aimed at reestablishing Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s bona fides as lucrative audience draws. While “Escape Plan” proves watchable for its duration, it confirms that, as leading men, there’s not enough room for both of them in one average film.