Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Cap'n Howdy's (Back)Log: Escape Plan

  Escape Plan is a surprisingly good theatrically released DTV movie. Wait, let me take that back. That's a mean way to start the review, and since Escape Plan is actually a (lot) better than either Bullet to the Head or The Last Stand, I shouldn't be diminishing your expectations already by suggesting that it's a non-direct to video DTV entry. Not that you'd be mistaken for thinking that when I get to the cast, a who's who of once-upon-a-time "they're in this?" but now probably more like "oh, that's what they're up to"-ers. Again, I feel I'm being mean already, and I really liked Escape Plan. Maybe DTV is just better than what you'd expect it to be these days (except the ones starring Bruce Willis). Or maybe the average action movie just isn't (A Good Day to Die Hard, I'm looking at you...)

 So if you're ignoring The Expendables, and for the moment let's do that, Escape Plan is the first film co-headlined by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is definitely still a Stallone movie, but Arnold has a crucial supporting part and drives most of the narrative. More importantly, unlike his one-liner joke machine cameos in The Expendables movies, Schwarzenegger is actually playing a character that doesn't rely on the fact we know he's Ah-nuld. It's pretty cool to see him no be quite as larger than life but just be a grizzled criminal who needs Sly's help. Stallone is basically playing any of his non-Rocky / Rambo-types, but that's a good thing. The "man of few words" works for what amounts to a pretty linear plot.

 Ray Breslin (Stallone) is a former prosecutor turned profession jailbreak-er. He works for a consulting firm that helps the Department of Prison Services determine how safe their institutions are from escapes, and as he demonstrates in the first ten minutes, Ray is very good at observing routines, memorizing layouts, and discovering weaknesses in prison security. He's so good, in fact, that Ray literally wrote the book on prison design (we see it several times in the movie). CIA representative Jessica Miller (Caitriona Balfe) comes to Breslin's boss Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio) with a proposition: a secret, non-government sanction super prison is being tested for the worst of the worst, and in order to make sure that it's really as state-of-the-art as they hope it is, they want Ray to try to get out. Despite the clandestine details surrounding his arrival to "The Tomb," Breslin reluctantly agrees, but quickly discovers that someone with an axe to grind intends for him to stay there permanently.

 Now this is already a pretty good "wrong man" setup before we're introduced to Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), who's in "The Tomb" for refusing to cooperate with authorities in locating his boss, an international thief / hacker. Rottmayer turns out to be the only friend Breslin has, even when Ray isn't interested in forging alliances. This prison is, well, different: the cells are plexiglass and elevated, the guards are all masked to hide their identities and use random schedules, and warden Hobbes (Jim Caveziel) built the facility using Breslin's book as a blueprint. Hobbes doesn't know Ray's actual identity at first, but he's bound and determined to keep every "asset" under his thumb, and his number one "guard," Drake (Vinnie Jones) is the muscle that backs that up.

 While Escape Plan doesn't necessarily rewrite the "prison escape movie" playbook (come in, turn enemies into friends, work out the prison, etc.), I will give it credit for little touches that you don't see often enough. For example, there's probably a really good reason most of the people in this high tech prison (one that has a barcode scanner for uniforms) were captured in the first place, but you never think twice when Ray includes some of them in his plan that they too should escape. Partly this is because of how cruel Hobbes is, but also the nature of this "black site" prison - which, speaking of nice touches, is in a novel location - we're already iffy that it should exist when the CIA pitches it to Ray. It doesn't get better when Breslin wakes up from being drugged to see Drake stabbing a prisoner and throwing him out of a helicopter. (To be fair, Hobbes does dock him the cost of the "asset" for doing that).

 This also might be the first American action movie since True Lies and definitely since the year 2001 that I can think of where a character is a practicing Muslim (Javed, played by the President of Elysium, Faran Tahir) and not portrayed as a cartoonish villain but as a man of faith who speaks openly about it. In fact, his prayer becomes a central plot point late in the film, as do his doubts about whether this would offend Allah. Hobbes gets to be even more of a jerk when he replies to Javed's "God is great" by saying "Yeah, whatever" and (SPOILER) shooting him.

 I also appreciated that while it plays out pretty much like you'd expect it to, there are initially some questions about allegiances and who Breslin can and can't trust, mostly due to a twist near the end of the film I must admit I'd forgotten about. This isn't tied to the twist, but to get back to the quasi-DTV casting nature of this, the prison doctor Kyrie is performed by In the Mouth of Madness's Sam Neill, and what I was expecting (or, I should say, dreading) was the long speech about how he ended up in these dubious circumstances. You know the speech, we've heard it a million times. It happens right before he decides to help the hero out, but in Escape Plan, it never happens. Instead of being told, we see it in the look on Neill's face when he tells Ray anesthetic is forbidden by Hobbes, or in a simple shot of Dr. Kyrie reading the Hippocratic oath with a bottle of liquor next to him. It explains the shaky hands when he tried to stitch up Ray. In a movie that could just go the expected route, I'm happy when it doesn't.

 So we've got Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caveziel, Sam Neill, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Vinnie Jones so far, but this alone does not a non-DTV DTV roster make. We need at least two more cast members with name recognition, and luckily, I haven't even mentioned Ray's team. For starters, there's Hush, the ex-con who would go back into prison to help Ray get out if he needed help, and is the computer expert. How about 50 Cent? Done! And what about Abigail, the conscience of the team and hard-to-tell if she's hot for Ray or not (seriously, it's not clear). Let's go with Academy Award nominee for Gone Baby Gone's Amy Ryan. Ladies and gentlemen, let's slap those names on some photoshopped artwork and get this sucker onto Target shelves!

 Or they could not do that and release it in theatres with just Stallone and Schwarzenegger and people don't go see it, just like they didn't see The Last Stand or Bullet to the Head. It's a shame, because Escape Plan is a) really good and b) surprises you with the cast because unless you hit up IMDB first, you probably didn't know anybody else was in this movie. Not literally, of course, but I suspect you wouldn't know there were that many recognizable names / faces in Escape Plan. You probably just thought it was another stupid action movie that nobody wanted to see, thusly making Escape Plan's failure a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that's too bad, because while I enjoyed Furious 6 quite a bit, it doesn't need to be the only high water mark of action movies while we put up with garbage like G.I. Joe: Retaliation. From what I've seen of Olympus Has Fallen, it is arguably more preposterous but not as well constructed as Escape Plan.

 Speaking of which, I was very surprised to find that Mikael Håfström, he who made 1408, directed Escape Plan. Truth be told, this was an improvement in just about every way over that movie, with the exception of no John Cusack, who was probably busy making his own quasi-DTV joint. But anyway, Escape Plan. Rent it when it comes out. Watch it with your buddies. Sly's good. Arnold's good. The rest of the cast is good too. Some nice twists. An interesting setting. Arnold gives an entire monologue in German which is the first time I can think of that happening in a very long time (if at all). Gratuitous sequence in New Orleans because it's cheap to film action movies in Louisiana (seriously, even the Jason Statham / James Franco movie, Homefront*, was filmed there). It's a better movie than a lot of people will give it credit for, and definitely a better action movie than anything other than Furious 6 that I mentioned in this review. If you have to, pretend it's DTV and it'll be even better, but that's not really being fair to the movie is all I'm saying.

 * Written by Sylvester Stallone.

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