Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Action superstars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger co-star in “1408” director Mikael Hafstrom’s “Escape Plan” (*** OUT OF ****), an audacious but improbable prison break epic that delivers brawny thrills and chills galore.  Unlike the last two “Expendables” outings, Stallone and Schwarzenegger appear here on equal footing in more than rather than a couple of scenes.  Basically, we’ve got “Rocky” and “The Terminator” tangling with Mr. Reese from the provocative, CBS-TV thriller “Person of Interest.”  If you’re expecting another wise-cracking yarn with our heroes spouting clever one-liners, you’re going to be disappointed.  Indeed, little of the dialogue in “Escape Plan” deserves to be immortalized on bumper stickers.  Refreshingly, neither do our stars make any references to their previous Hollywood blockbusters.  Everybody plays it straight-forward in this survival-of-the-fittest saga.  Meanwhile, most of the testosterone-laden action consists of men either beating or shooting the living daylights out of each other in examples of outlandish, over-the-top violence.  Stallone is cast against type as a mature, serious-minded, MacGyver-like hero with a Houdini talent for crashing out of prisons, while Schwarzenegger plays one of the most dangerous men alive behind bars.  Jim Caviezel is cast against type, too, as a villain so dastardly that you will squeal with glee when he gets his comeuppance.  Former British soccer star Vinnie Jones chews the scenery with relish as Caviezel’s second-in-command.  Jones’ evil  prison guard shows no qualms about smashing inmates to a pulp as if they were drums.  

Scenarists Miles Chapman of “Road House 2: Last Call” and Jason Keller of “Machine Gun Preacher” generate plenty of suspense about the mysterious setting of the prison.  After an exciting introductory sequence at a Colorado prison where our hero demonstrates his masterly escape artist credentials, the remainder of “Escape Plan” occurs in an imposing penitentiary designed for the worst of the worst.  Essentially, the convicts occupy cells that resemble glass cages stacked atop each other and framed with steel beams.  “Source Code” production designer Barry Chusid has surpassed himself with this visually intriguing setting.  Well-armed, incorruptible, prison guards decked out from head to foot in black uniforms with sinister Guy Fawkes masks reminiscent of the police in director George Lucas’ dystopian sci-fi chiller “THX-1138” patrol the premises.  An around-the-clock surveillance system denies the inmates any privacy.  Hafstrom and his writers will keep you guessing for about an hour into the action where this impressive pen could be situated.  When Stallone finally figures out its whereabouts, the revelation is comparable to the lair of a James Bond villain.  While “Escape Plan” recycles some of the usual prison movie shenanigans, the imaginative setting sets this movie apart. 

Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone of “First Blood”) has broken out of 14 prisons over the last eight years.  He has formed his one-of-kind company with Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio of “Full Metal Jacket”) along with Abigail (Amy Ryan of “Green Zone”) and computer wizard Hush (Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson of “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’”).  Out of the blue, the Central Intelligence Agency makes Ray an offer that he cannot refuse.  They challenge Ray to break out of their super-max slammer, and they are prepared to pay him twice his usual million dollar fee.  Initially, Ray doesn’t like the set-up.  Abigail and Hush share his dread.  Lester thinks it will be a picnic.  Reluctantly Ray accepts their dare against his better judgment.  Predictably, things go badly from the outset.  Our hero is abducted, drugged, and the homing device embedded in his body that enables Abigail and Hush to track him is removed.  The moment Ray awakens in his exotic prison cell, he wants out of the proposition.  Unfortunately, he learns that he is going nowhere.  It seems treacherous Lester has double-crossed him, and Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel of “The Thin Red Line”) has orders to keep him permanently on ice.  Ironically, Ray discovers Hobbes has designed his prison security measures based on Ray’s book about the most common structural flaws in prison security!

Ray finds himself surrounded by a formidable population of inmates that want to kill him.  Initially, one of these brutes is Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger of “The Last Stand”), and they don’t cotton to each other.  When Ray clobbers Emil with his first blow, Emil observes with a smirk, “You hit like a vegetarian!”  When the Muslim brotherhood decides to gang up on Ray, Emil changes his mind and comes to our hero’s rescue.  Eventually, Ray and Emil become friends.  Ray explains that he has been paid to break out.  He suffers a number of set-backs, but he recovers from Hobbes’ savage treatment with Emil’s help.  Ray reveals his formula for success.  He must study the layout of the prison, and this means he must incite a riot so Hobbes can throw him in solitary confinement.  Solitary confinement is the equivalent of Hell where inmates are caged up and subjected to a blazing battery of search lights that turn the cage into an oven.  Ray notices the screws that in the floor plates are steel rather than aluminum.  He suspects the prison may be located in a vast underground cavern.  Next, he scrutinizes the rotation of the guards and their routines while they watch the inmates.  The most important part of Ray’s plan is finding somebody on the inside who will help them since he is cut off from Abigail and Hush.  The most likely candidate is the prison doctor, Dr. Kyrie (Sam Neill of “Jurassic Park”), but he displays considerable reluctance.

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger should have teamed up long before “Escape Plan” because they radiate convincing camaraderie.  Director Mikael Hafstrom never lets the momentum lag, and he minimizes the clichés that crop up in most prison flicks.  For example, the Muslim inmates are rehabilitated as heroes after they join Ray and Emil.  Our heroes suffer considerably at the hands of the sadistic warden and his lieutenant before they triumph.  The worst thing about “Escape Plan” is that its exterior computer-generated imagery appears less than spectacular.  

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