ESCAPE PLAN: You Hit Like a Vegetarian

Escape Plan Quad Poster

Escape Plan (2013) – Directed by Mikael Håfström – Starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Vinnie Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.

It’s fascinating watching our ’80s and ’90s action heroes age. Bruce Willis has turned minimalist, his characters becoming more interior, as if what age has sapped is not his physical skills but his wit and charm. Clint Eastwood has turned intellectual and slightly repentant, reexamining, if not outright apologizing for his previous cinematic personas. Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme largely continue to churn out films they could have made 20 years ago, except with directors and supporting actors we’ve heard of.

And then there’s the case of Sylevester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger – the former of whom has never left the gym and the latter who traded in Hollywood for Sacramento. Born almost a year apart, Stallone is a year older but tries (almost desperately) to appear younger, while Schwarzenegger seems far more comfortable with his advancing years.

Rocky and First Blood-era Stallone provided some of the best character studies we’ve ever seen in action movie history, but it’s like once Sly made it to the top of the Hollywood mountain, his interest became staying there instead of finding another mountain to climb. So much of his career has been about maintaining and recapturing the idea of his very “Sly-ness” that somewhere along the line (probably 1985) he stopped being an actor and started being a commodity. Whenever he’d step out to offer a different version of himself (such as in Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), the public didn’t show up and Sly went right back to giving us what we wanted.

Rocky, Rocky II, and First Blood felt like films where Stallone had something to say. It feels like he made these movies for him, but by the time Cliffhanger was offered up to wash the taste of comedic Sly from our brains, Stallone was just a brand, pre-packaged and sold to us like fast food. While both were good movies, the difference between Rocky II and Rocky IV is the difference between a filet mignon and a Big Mac – the first has something to say to you and the second just wants to make you happy. There was still plenty to like about Stallone (TM), but Sly seems to have gone missing for much of the next two decades.

Since largely transforming himself into a Greatest Hits act with 2006′s Rocky Balboa (which, tellingly, also saw his return to the Director’s Chair for the first time since Rocky IV was released 21 years earlier), Sylvester Stallone has very astutely blended nostalgia and defiance, combining the public’s desire to see Classic Stallone with Sly’s insistence he can still do everything he used to do. Through Balboa, Rambo, The Expendables, it’s sequel, and Grudge Match, Stallone likes to have his characters give lip service to the idea of aging, but then physically attempts to prove he’s still got it. Maybe he’s a step slower, making he hits a little less hard, but he’s still got what it takes to out-physical whatever threat gets tossed in his way.

Stallone’s approach to aging is to get in the gym and come out swinging (the only “dying” Stallone is much interested in thinking about is with his hair), where Arnold Schwarzenegger is revealing himself to be much more comfortable with the idea of getting older. Post-Gubernatorial Arnold is much more interested in not only acting like an aged man on screen but in passing the torch. The Last Stand and Sabotage both feature Schwarzenegger surrounded by a younger cast of actors. It’s likely far too late for either Stallone or Schwarzenegger to pass the torch to a younger star who needs a breakout role, but where Stallone’s roles are determined to keep him in the leading role, Arnold’s characters acknowledge their age and admit they need help to get the job done.

In this light, it’s not surprising that Stallone has been the more prominent character in their recent team-ups. The Expendables franchise is his franchise, after all, and he brings Arnold (and Willis and Harrison Ford and every other person who’s ever thrown a punch in a movie made before 1999) in to make that franchise more valuable. Stallone still seems hungry to prove his mettle while Arnold, like many veteran politicians with enough sense of decency not to whore themselves out to a lobbyist firm, has settled comfortably into the elder statesman’s role. Let Eastwood reflect, Willis internalize, and Stallone defy, Schwarzenegger has emerged from the political battles of California without any seeming desire to recapture who he used to be. He’s a different man in a different time now, and he seems content to let his on-screen persona reflect that.

That was a very long intro into saying that ESCAPE PLAN perfectly captures where both Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are in their careers right now, and the end result is a tremendously satisfying movie.

Had Arnold and Sly made a movie together 20 years ago, I shudder to think what the budget would have been. Stallone’s 1993 film, Cliffhanger cost $65 million in 1993 money, which is roughly the equivalent of $105 million in 2013 money, while Arnold’s 1993 film, The Last Action Hero, would cost around $137 million. (Thanks, U.S. Department of Labor Inflation Calculator.

ESCAPE PLAN had a reported budget of $50 million.

Think on that, for a moment. ESCAPE PLAN, which finally gives us Scwarzenegger and Stallone co-leading a movie, was made for about half the money it would cost to make Cliffhanger, or about one-third of the money to make Last Action Hero.

Unfortunately, the returns were down, as well. ESCAPE largely tanked in the United States, making only $25 million. In adjusted money, Cliffhanger’s haul equates to $137 million and Last Action Hero (which was a bit of a bomb, remember) comes in around $80 million.

In 1993 money, ESCAPE PLAN would have cost $31 million and made $15 million domestically.* That’s a pretty sobering statement on the American public’s appetite for two of it’s historically most popular action stars, and it in no way speaks to the quality of ESCAPE PLAN, a thoroughly entertaining prison movie full of solid performances from Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the supporting cast.

(It made $137 million worldwide, proving the larger world still has enough interest in Sly and Arnold to make a decent profit.)

Ray Breslin (Stallone) is a former lawyer turned prison expert. As part of the security company he co-owns with Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio), Breslin goes undercover in maximum security prisons in order to see if he can break out. He’s always given an extraction code, but he’d rather shank an inmate who intends him harm and try to get out legitimately rather than use it as the first sign of trouble.

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in ESCAPE PLAN.

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in ESCAPE PLAN.

I always get a kick out of seeing odd jobs portrayed on the big screen, and Prison Escape Artist certainly qualifies. Breslin breaks out of a normal jail to open the film, just to show us his proficiency in action, but on his first day back in the office the government shows up to offer him a big score to break out of a new, secret prison for the biggest collection of scum and villainy in the universe.

Clark wants Breslin to take the job because it’s double his usual fee, Breslin’s assistants Abigail (Amy Ryan) and Hush (50 Cent) don’t want him to take the job because there’s too many secrets involved, and Breslin decides to take the job because we wouldn’t have a movie without it. The film does a very nice job using Breslin’s loneliness as a rationale for him being in the profession. He’s smart enough to know something is problematic with the government’s deal, but you also get the clear sense (long before the movie gives us a narrative rationale) that Breslin is the kind of guy who’s more comfortable on the job than he is off it.

It’s all a set-up and Breslin’s tracker chip is cut out and he’s drugged, awakening in “the Tomb,” a top secret, glass-walled prison. He tries to use his extraction code on Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) but the warden doesn’t know who he is until halfway through the film. There’s lots of small little twists and turns like that throughout the film that help to keep the story fresh. Director Mikael Håfström isn’t trying to make a prison version of The Usual Suspects here (the biggest twists – that Clark betrayed Breslin, and the identity of a criminal Hobbes has been charged with learning – can be seen coming a mile away) but ESCAPE PLAN is continually offering up slight course corrections and re-contextualizations to keep the story engaging.

Breslin is a thinker and has surmised that they’re likely underground, but if he can get to the surface, they’re probably near a small town because prisons need a workforce to draw from. He forms an alliance with Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), this prison’s version of the guy who can get you what you need.

Which is a bit tough, because after a complicated plan to break out of isolation (which involves bright lights, heat, and the wrong kind of screws), Breslin discovers they’re on a massive cargo ship in the middle of the ocean. It’s fun watching Stallone play a tough guy who uses his brain. My favorite scene in the movie sees Breslin and Rottmayer talking about the prison guards – Breslin lets us in on his thought process (he’s very big on figuring out a prison’s routine, which the Tomb purposely tries to frustrate as it turns out Hobbes is a big fan of Breslin’s book on prison security) as Rottmayer is an enthusiastic student/contributor.

Schwarzenegger plays the perfect sidekick to Stallone in ESCAPE PLAN because where Breslin is deadly serious, Rottmayer is like a big kid. Schwarzenegger looks like he’s having a blast, and the scene where he yells in German at Hobbes is unlike anything I’ve seen from him.

The film plays out as a series of moves and countermoves and I dug all of it. There’s plenty of action, but this film works more because of the characters and the interaction between Breslin, Rottmayer, and Hobbes (Caviezel is a blast) than it does because of all the punching and shooting. With really professional secondary performances from veteran actors like Sam Neill, Vinnie Jones, and Faran Tahir, ESCAPE PLAN never sags.

Some people will never be happy that Arnold and Sly didn’t team up in their prime, but that shouldn’t be held against ESCAPE PLAN. Sly and Arnold are older and can’t move like they used to, but they both still fill the screen with an unmistakable superstar presence. ESCAPE PLAN may not be the movie the American public wanted, but I think it’s reputation will only grow as the year’s move on. I often call movies like this “AMC movies,” because it’s never going to be considered a classic, but in twenty or forty years people will see a film starring Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and a whole bunch of other semi-familiar names and tune in. Usually, movies like this disappoint (there’s a reason they’re not considered classics), but ESCAPE PLAN will not.

__________

Gunfighter Gothic: Under Zeppelin Skies, from Mark Bousquet and Atomic Anxiety Press.

Gunfighter Gothic: Under Zeppelin Skies, from Mark Bousquet and Atomic Anxiety Press.

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