"You hit like a vegetarian!"
Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger)
There is a lot of mileage in the phrase, "They don't make 'em like they used to anymore", and on a personal front, this applies significantly to the muscle-bound action movie genre. Growing up on a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your point of view) diet of Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies left me with some indelible memories of gratuitous violence, pithy one-liners and extremely oversized male role models beating the crap out of baddies. And while either of these two action megastars could still snap me like the twig that I am today, the two have not been served with the best material since the heady heights of the late 80s and early 90s.
Sly has probably been dealt with the harsher hand - whilst The Expendables was OK as a remember-the-Eighties action fix, its sequel was a weaker compilation of former catchphrases and patchwork set-pieces. Director Walter Hill's rather disappointing Bullet to the Head was leaden and derivative, and even Stallone's sober return as John Rambo was more about pushing the intensity of the violence to its utmost extreme. At Least Arnie has had an excuse - his role as the Governator did take up all of his time. And perhaps his work since his return to the big screen will not replace the joyous memories of The Terminator, Predator and Total Recall. But his fleeting appearances in the Expendables movies hinted at the old magic he still possesses, while his first major role in Kim Ji-woon's modern western The Last Stand showcased a much lighter touch and a greater sense of fun than his old action rival Stallone.
It will therefore come as no surprise that, in my humble opinion, Escape Plan is not going to change this status much. If it is to be compared to the previous output from the two old action pros, this would be placed alongside Sly's Tango & Cash and Cobra, or Arnie's Raw Deal and Red Heat. And yet, while no-one could really argue that these films were the cream of their steroid-induced oeuvre, there are many action fans who will voice a considerate soft spot for them. And Escape Plan will fit right in amongst them.
Starting with the negatives, it is fair to say that the plot does not stand up to much scrutiny. While the basic concept of the film is intriguing enough, the set-up is very basic and does not really stand up to much scrutiny. But then again, this argument can be relayed to most of Stallone and Schwarzenegger's movies. Characterization is also far too thin on the ground, even for an action movie such as this. There is only a vague level of motivation for Stallone's Ray Breslin for doing the type of work he is doing, while seasoned actors like Amy Ryan and Vincent D'Onofrio try in vain to produce something tangible from the non-existent roles offered to them. Even Stallone himself is far too sombre and morose as the lead character, leaving you yearning for the fun-loving Sly of Demolition Man days gone by. The action is solid but unremarkable, while even the location - a vertical glass-cell construct with no windows and masked screws armed with electric shock batons - is not quite as dominating and oppressive as you would hope.
So far, this does not make a glowing endorsement for your Saturday night movie fix. Therefore it is a gift from the Gods that director Mikael Håfström lets Schwarzenegger step up to the plate and throw himself headlong into his role as the experienced "fixer" in the Tomb. Arnie's Rottmayer is the movie's primary saving grace and the former Governor of California is having a real blast. Where Stallone tries to convey dour emotion and pensive genius, Arnie goes for all-out pantomime and is all the more entertaining for it. Who else could laugh his way through a water-boarding interrogation with such glee, or tap into his inner Bavarian nutcase while locked in solitary confinement? And when Arnie rips off a helicopter-mounted machine gun and opens Hellfire on the villainous prison guards, the gleam in his eyes has never shone as brightly since the good old days. Ably backing him up are the movie's main antagonists - Jim Caviezel has some fun as the butterfly-loving, O.C.D. warden Hobbes, while Vinnie Jones makes for a perfectly good psychotic henchman. And despite their largely forgettable set-ups, the action set-pieces are still big enough and thrilling enough to allow Sly and Arnie plenty of one-liner opportunities when dispatching their evil foes. Any action fan will keenly lap all of this up with joy - proving that there is still plenty of life in the old musclebound dogs yet.
While one is hard-pressed to call this an action classic, Escape Plan is largely successful in its macho endeavors. Indifferent plotting and by-the-numbers characterization may bring the mood down, but Schwarzenegger gamely takes the film by the scruff of the neck and injects it with a sheer sense of joy and good humor sorely lacking in his cohort. Check your brain at the door, banish away memories of the last Expendables movie and have a fun night out with Sly and Arnie.