The biggest problem I've had with Sylvester Stallone's Expendables franchise is that the movies have little to offer beyond their basic selling point: “All of your favorite stars of yesteryear, together at last!” Sure, it's a kick to see so many muscular '80s icons hanging out together, but storytelling seems to be a secondary concern for all involved. Those movies ought to be a goofy blast, but the plotting and direction are so sloppy that the dumb fun gets muted. Mikael Hafstrom's Escape Plan – which pairs Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger – attempts to give its aging stars the things the Expendables movies denied them: characters, a story, cinematic polish, etc. Granted, it's still pretty dopey, but at least it feels like a real movie.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, the world's most renowned structural-security expert. A what, now? Basically, his job involves testing the supposed invulnerability of various maximum security prisons. He poses an inmate and immediately begins constructing an escape plan. If there's a way out, Ray will find it. “What kind of man chooses to spend most of his life in prison?” one bewildered warden asks. Ray merely smiles, saving his deeply personal answer for an appropriate moment in the third act.
One day, Ray gets an unusual contract offer. He's asked to test the security of a top-secret federal prison in an undisclosed location. The terms of the contract are odd: neither Ray nor the members of his team (including Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone, Vincent D'onfrio, Men in Black and 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Trying) will be permitted to know the location of the prison. Ray ignores his better instincts and agrees. Alas, once he actually arrives, he realizes that he may have finally met his match. There's no way out of this place. He reluctantly tells the warden (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ) that he'd like to leave. The warden scoffs at the suggestion, and sends Ray back to his cell. Something's wrong. Ray's been set up. He's been imprisoned for real this time, and there's no way out. It's at this point that Schwarzenegger turns up as Emil Rottmayer, a prisoner harboring his own batch of secrets. After feeling each other out for a while, the two men decide to team up and plot an elaborate escape.
It's a pleasure (albeit a mild one) to see Stallone and Schwarzenegger sharing the screen together, and their banter feels surprisingly natural. The movie doesn't go out of its way to make tired jokes about the two stars being old, which is a nice change of pace from nearly everything else these two have made over the past few years. Schwarzenegger is a bit more animated than Stallone (because of course he is), but both actors seem to be enjoying themselves. It's nice.
Disappointingly, Escape Plan grows increasingly dull once the prison break plot gets underway. The screenplay borrows a host of prison movie conventions, but never manages to make any of them feel fresh or distinctive. Hafstrom's direction seems a little clumsier than usual, with shots that linger too long and scenes that suffer from messy editing. Sequences that ought to feel precise and tense are undercut as a result, particularly a lengthy stretch that finds Stallone attempting to plot an initial escape route while Schwarzenegger creates a distraction (the latter does this by shouting Nietzsche quotes in German, which is fun). By the time the guys finally make their big escape attempt, we're ready to get out, too.
The most intriguing performance in the movie comes from Caviezel as the villainous warden. You've seen this character before, but never played the way Caviezel plays him. The warden is essentially an eccentric Bond villain, dismissing the heroes with pithy one-liners and indulging in all sorts of horrible behavior for the sake of his own amusement. It's the sort of role that would encourage most actors to ham it up, but Caviezel goes the opposite direction, delivering his lines with monotone flatness. It's like watching a Christopher Walken character essayed by a plank of wood. I'm not sure how much of this is intentional, but I couldn't stop smiling every time the guy showed up.
There are plenty of little things to enjoy in Escape Plan – Schwarzenegger's goofy kiss-off line, Vincent D'Onofrio's typically loopy supporting turn, a rousing orchestral score from Alex Heffes, Amy Ryan's effortless warmth – but it's a pity the big things are so dull. The final act leans heavily on big twists, most of which you'll have guessed by the movie's halfway point. “Didn't see that one coming,” says Stallone, speaking for himself and no one else. If you're a fan of the two stars, Escape Plan is a bland but tolerable way to spend a couple of hours with them. If the thought of witnessing Rocky and The Terminator share an adventure does little for you, you're in for a long two hours.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Year: 2014