Monday, October 21, 2013

The Cinema File #261: "Escape Plan" Review

Growing up in the 80's and 90's, the playful rivalry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone over who could claim the mantle of Most Badass Action Star was perhaps more important to me as a prepubescent action buff than maybe it should have been. With all the silly references across their more meta-friendly movies and a lot of backstage drama between them, it seems strange in retrospect that we didn't actually see them together onscreen for the first time until a few years ago, starting with the first in the now gratuitous nostalgic orgasm known as The Expendables franchise. Because their first official pairing was in the midst of such an orgy of hasbeens, the new film Escape Plan (formerly Exit Plan, and before that The Tomb) feels like a more fitting debut for their unique chemistry, and while it may seem incredibly dickish of me to pan Gravity, a film widely regarded as the best of the year, and then turn around and applaud a big dumb action movie like this, well, fuck it, I had too much fun with this movie not to.

Escape Plan follows a particularly sly Stallone as a professional Houdini who literally wrote the book on building the inescapable prison, having devoted his life to infiltrating and then busting out of them on behalf of the federal government. When he finds himself seemingly double crossed by the CIA and trapped inside an illegal black site supermax specially designed to counteract his usual tricks, he's forced to team up with a mysterious Austrian criminal in order to stage an elaborate jailbreak. If you can believe that the slurry, slack jawed Stallone can pass as an expert in anything but punching dudes in the face, and that on top of that he just so happens to also be an expert in punching dudes in the face, then you're already half way there to accepting the increasingly ridiculous premise of Escape Plan. And if you can't, then frankly go fuck yourself. Reality should never get in the way of Badassery, and in the end all the silly contrivances are just a flimsy excuse to get two icons in the same room together for 90 minutes to once again prove that they can still do this shit better than so-called leading men half their age.

And speaking of age, I mentioned in my review for The Last Stand, Arnold's first post-gubernatorial foray back into movies, that the success of any new film featuring his generation of action stars going forward will invariably hinge on how well their advanced age is incorporated. Escape Plan does a remarkably good job of making you forget that both of these guys are pushing 70, at times de-emphasizing the more physically intensive set pieces that might reveal the rough spots without taking away from the overall enjoyment of the film. In lieu of non-stop fist fights and explosions, the movie ends up being more of a con film than even an action movie, built around a series of intricate multi-part schemes that are only explained or otherwise revealed after the fact, somewhat reminiscent of the recent magical heist movie Now You See Me. That’s not to say that there isn’t more than enough gratuitous violence, just that there’s a little more variety in the storytelling than I was expecting. Though marketed as a straightforward action movie, Escape Plan turns out to be a con movie stuffed inside a jailbreak movie, stuffed inside a more traditional action flick, resulting in a cinematic Turducken that is as tasty as it sounds.

Surprisingly, even though the two 80's titans are the main draw, I found myself almost equally enamored with the supporting characters inside and outside of the prison. Vincent D'Onofrio shows up in what really amounts to an extended cameo as a shifty business partner who gets probably the funniest denouement of any of the characters, and Faran Tahir, mostly typecast as stern official characters like the regent in Warehouse 13 and the President of Elysium, gets to play a comic relief Muslim terrorist who defies expectations all around for these kinds of movies by proving to be both heroic and pretty bad ass in the end. The standout is Jim Caviezel, who I did not expect to be so effectively creepy as the prison warden. As the mind games between him and the escapees escalate, we see him gradually lose his composure, becoming almost cartoonish in his villainy, but without going too far over the top until a last minute almost literal wink at the camera. The only one obviously wasted is Sam Neill as the prison doctor, only because they make him a sympathetic character, when they could have had someone so good at playing menacing bad guys in a position to inflict real medical harm on our heroes.

If it didn’t come together so well just as shameless entertainment, I would be tempted to criticize the structure of the film for trying to do too much with too little substance. In retrospect, the titular escape plans aren’t necessarily as elaborate as the movie wants you to think they are, and they all seem to rely on that special kind of serendipity that only exists in movie. Also, because the movie relies so much on misdirection, eventually you begin to settle in to the routine of not trusting the events playing out at face value, always waiting for the twist, which proves to be satisfying maybe 75% of the time. If you don’t guess the biggest twist early on I’d be very surprised, and the mystery of who set Sly’s character up might have been a little better if they’d bothered to introduce even one other possible suspect. It’s hard to pin down exactly where the problem is with the mix of genre conventions, but if I had to try, I’d say the pacing is a bit off, never quite settling down and giving us enough time to appreciate certain key moments before shifting to a completely different tone. Ultimately it succeeds by the low standards of what is required for this kind of movie, which sounds like I’m damning it with feint praise, when I’m really just acquiescing to the fact that I really demand very little of a movie with Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and explosions.

And for that matter, you shouldn’t either. After the absurd 80’s fan-service of The Expendables franchise, two Die Hard In The Whitehouse movies, and now the first real Arnold/Sly crossover we’ve ever had, we just might be entering a new golden age of cinema marking a return to the style of filmmaking of our childhood, when men were men, shit blowed up real good without the benefit of CGI, and movies were allowed to be unabashedly fun and kickass without being self-aware or gritty and realistic. If things continue at this rate, we might even get some bad ass Nicolas Cage movies again. Escape Plan has its flaws, and it might not be exactly the Schwarzenegger vs. Stallone movie I always wanted, if only because it should have happened a lot sooner when they were both in their prime, but for the most part it delivers on what it promises, and in the absence of a time machine, I’ll take it. At least until we get the epic Rambo vs. Commando movie I’ve been waiting for since I was twelve, or barring that, Rocky VII: Judgment Day. Hell, they’re already doing Rocky vs. Raging Bull, why not throw a Terminator in there for good measure?

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