Considering the degree to which slavish fan service has come to dominate the development process for genre pics, it’s amazing that no one managed to load ‘80s action gods Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger into a true co-starring vehicle until now. With that in mind, the highest compliment one can pay “Escape Plan” is that this prison-break actioner plays much like the kind of film the two might have made in their heyday, albeit with far more scripted downtime for its sexagenarian stars. Mercifully free of tongue-in-cheek meta-humor, “Escape Plan” is a likably lunkheaded meat-and-potatoes brawler that never pretends to be more sophisticated than it is, and though “Expendables”-level B.O. numbers will be out of reach, genre fans and international auds should lap it up.
Looking as slablike as ever, Stallone stars as Ray Breslin, a former lawyer who literally wrote the book on breaking out of prison (paperback copies of his august tome “Compromising Correctional Institutional Security” appear to be popular bedside reading). Employed by an ill-defined agency, Breslin works freelance for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, identifying firsthand the weak spots of penitentiaries by entering them as an undercover inmate and escaping.
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Fresh off a nicely staged jailbreak in Colorado, Breslin is hired by a CIA operative for double his usual pay to infiltrate a new, privately funded black-site facility intended to house “the worst of the worst.” Abandoning his usual safety protocols for the gig, Breslin is promptly double-crossed and left to rot in an impressively designed next-gen dungeon straight out of “Demolition Man,” with beehives of glass cells and jackbooted guards wearing black Guy Fawkes masks.
To put it delicately, Stallone has never been the type of actor who radiates deep analytical contemplation, and buying him as a sort of juiced-up MacGyver with encyclopedic knowledge of metallurgy, structural engineering and physical oceanography requires considerable indulgence. Fortunately, he’s soon joined by Schwarzenegger as a fellow inmate, the gloriously monikered Emil Rottmayer, who cozies up to Breslin with suspicious openness.
While Stallone’s deadpan tough-guy routine reaches such somnolent levels that a scene in which he’s tortured with sleep deprivation causes little discernible change in his demeanor, Schwarzenegger hasn’t been this alive onscreen in years. Gifted with all the film’s best one-liners (“You hit like a vegetarian” being the standout) and finally allowed to speak his native German onscreen, the former governor is all wild eyes and mischievous grins. His Rottmayer quickly becomes Breslin’s accomplice, and the two sketch out an impossible-yet-not-totally-absurd plot under the watchful eye of sadistic prison warden/amateur lepidopterist Hobbes (an icy Jim Caviezel).
By the standards of both stars’ respective filmographies, “Escape Plan” reps a relatively low-key iteration of their trademark skull-crackery; fights are limited to punches and judo holds, with nary a throat-ripping or eye-gouging to be seen, and it isn’t until the film’s final third that our heroes even wield a gun. And considering the Republican political affiliations of its stars — not to mention the Reaganite jingoism of ‘80s actioners in general — the pic exhibits a surprisingly liberal bent: Corporatized prisons, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding and Blackwater are unambiguously decried, while a gang of Arab Muslims prove to be key allies.
Yet grand statements are hardly part of director Mikael Hafstrom’s m.o., and after an occasionally dull middle third — including a needless bit of backstory for Breslin that Stallone almost seems embarrassed to relate — the film comes alive for the climactic jailbreak, as Schwarzenegger finally gets to go full “Commando” with a ludicrously oversized machine gun.
Hafstrom lavishes considerable care on the film’s production design and in-camera effects, sometimes to the detriment of its overall look, which can tend toward muddiness. Fight choreography breaks no new ground, but it’s all efficiently constructed, and Alex Heffes’ numbskull score fits the proceedings to a tee. Supporting players Vincent D’Onofrio and Vinnie Jones slip into their typical miens with minimal fuss, while Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is hysterically miscast as a bespectacled computer expert.