We are obsessed with maxims of human ability; who is fastest, who is strongest, who is deadliest. And we’ve created proving grounds for each. The Olympics. Worlds Strongest Man. That program with Sean Bean’s brother from Lord of the Rings. Etc. But we don’t care about any of that. Truly, the only thing any boy or girl ever wants to be is the biggest action hero of all time. Undoubtedly it’s always gonna be Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. You can argue about who fills that bronze spot on the medal podium all you want (the Lundgrens, the Eastwoods, the Seagals), but gold and silver is a done deal. So then the only real question is who would win between these do monoliths of violence. Lets find out.
We begin in prison. Some modern day American affair. Lots of orange jump suits, yard time and metal bars. Sly (Demolition Man) is Ray Breslin, just a regular dude banged up for a crime he didn’t commit (literally, as you’ll see). Some of the other scumbag cons are out to get him and he’s forced to kick ass. His badassness draws the ire of the screws, and he’s thrown into the isolation tank. As he’s escorted down there we notice he notices everything. Codes, movements, everything. He’s calculating. He’s already escape planning.
It’s not going to be easy though. First problem – security cameras in his cell. They don’t even turn that shit off when he’s taking a crap. Plus there’s open air above him. There’s only a metal grate between him and freedom. It’s so close he can hear the screws chatting shit and smell their smoking cigarettes. While MaGuyvering shit out of milk cartons and toilet roll, he watches and waits.
Then Boom. A diversion in the car park outside. Some broad in a wig sets off a car bomb. Good guy screw Fake Bill Goldberg checks his wing on the cameras. All present and accounted for. But when he does a room-to-room check Breslin is gone. Only his little bible has been left behind. He actually says “How the hell did he do that”. We don’t know Fake Goldberg man.
Before we know it Breslin has made his escape in a fireman’s outfit. The same bomber woman, Abigail (Amy Ryan – Bridge of Spies) sans wig and urban techno buddy Hush (50 Cent – Southpaw) drive him away to safety. They’re proper stoked to see Ray. He’s been down for 5 months. Hush was so concerned that he was gonna break into the prison to break Ray out. That’s sweet, considering he’s an ex-con who absolutely does not want to go back to prison. That’s how tight these two are.
It’s not over yet though. About a half mile down the road he gets out of their car and heads to a phone booth. Some passing beat cop spies his orange DOP threads and calls it in. Breslin is as cool as a cucumber though. As the police converge he makes one call. “Show time”. And he’s caught.
He’s brought back via a huge convoy. But there’s a letter and it’s gonna explain everything. Well, not really. Ray’s boss Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio – Full Metal Jacket) is actually gonna explain it all.
Ray and Lester’s company works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Ray is a master escape artist. He wrote the book on busting out of sing-sing. Literally. His manual even comes up later in the movie when he has to convince doctor Sam Neil (Jurassic Park) that he’s legit. Anyway, he’s inserted into prison to prove if they’re escape proof or not. In this case, it ain’t Mr. Warden. Sorry about that.
Breslin has been doing this shit for 7 years now, and this is his 14th super-max he’s escaped. He boasts all he needs is three things to plan a successful escape –
The Warden doesn’t seem to want to know though. All he’s curious about instead is what kind of man would choose to spend his life in prison? Turns out that Ray used to be a prosecutor with a lovely little family. Obviously some bastard he put away escaped prison and killed them, and instead of becoming Batman or what-have-you, he decided to become a master prison breaker just so he could show the holes in each facility. Fair enough.
You know, back-tracking a bit, I kind of felt sorry for Fake Goldberg. He’s gonna lose his job because in the 7 minutes his eyes weren’t on Breslin, he managed to get out. Maybe if the Warden actually cared more about his prison getting busted and not “what kind of man would do this”, this kind of crap wouldn’t happen.
Back at the office Breslin beats Hush at some silly-looking computer game (isn’t he supposed to be the tech guy??) and chats sexy with Abigail. Seems she can’t cook, but Ray can complain about it in the morning apparently. Fair enough.
There’s no time for that though, as Clark has a new client – the CIA. They want Breslin to test a facility for the super crimbos. The uber terrorists. The Nicholas Cages in Face Off kind of scenario. It’s totally unofficial, totally illegal. No trials or convictions. A place where people are disappeared. They offer him $5 mil, double his standard fee. Considering he’s doing this to make prisons more secure he’s actually making a trim little sum. But yeah, really sad about the wife and kid Ray. Here, let me wipe away that tear with the edge of that $100 bill.
Hush and Abigail hate it. It’s against all the guidelines and protocols Ray has put into place. Obviously Clark likes it, as it’s a decent some for little effort (on his part). Breslin is also tempted, as he likes a challenge. He agrees.
They create him a fake name and ID, is surgically implanted with a transponder, and give him a super secret get-out-of-jail code. He’ll be picked up in 24 hours to be taken to the secret location that no one can know about. Instead, while he’s out chilling in NOLA, he’s boosted and tased by some masked goons in a van. The transponder is cut out and he’s put under.
Sounds of chopper blades, cars etc. He even wakes up to see one con being stabbed to death and chucked out of the helicopter by Vinnie Jones (Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels). He goes under again. He awakens…somewhere. The tomb (original title for this film). A super advanced prison not made of metal, but of glass. That’s right, all the cells are perspex, raised high up where everyone can see them. There’s no pesky ventilation shafts and totally no privacy which in all fairness is not a kindness. Seriously, people wouldn’t want to see some of the dumps I do. Fill me with milkshake and it’s a ticking time bomb. I’m sure Ray Breslin will be the same.
The Tomb is run by Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel – Outlander). He’s precise and evil, purely about the money and running a tighter than tight ship. He’s into taxidermy and saying things really quietly and slowly. You know the type. He’s also not the warden Ray was expecting. Naturally the evacuation code he has doesn’t work either.
All the really bad stuff Hobbes needs doing he hands to Drake (Vinnie Jones). Now he totally hates Breslin because he blabbed about Drake killing that other con on the chopper ride over here. Hobbes docks him a months pay in retribution. We all know Drake is gonna get some shitty revenge. See, he runs all the goons – screws wearing blank masks carrying nightsticks and automatics. They all look the same so you can never tell who is who.
There’s also no routine. No sunlight, no set patrols. And no one knows where they are either. Hush and Abigail are clueless, and Clark has darker motivations to keep Breslin out of the picture. So without his three keys to victory, how is Breslin gonna escape? He needs help.
When a bunch of heavy, bald-headed, tatted up dudes start making moves on Breslin, it’s down to a stranger to come to his aid. The stranger is Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger – Conan the Barbarian). He’s inside because he’s protecting some dude called Mannheim whose a big Robin Hood type on the outside. Hobbes has been trying to break him for months to give him up. Rottmayer warns Breslin to chill though. The last time anyone got too frisky and the guards got heavy-handed and left the body rot for three days in the middle of the yard. They also cancelled the prison dance.
Rottmayer befriends Breslin, but it’s mainly due to Breslin’s assumed named, “Portos” – the fourth musketeer. This turns out to be a code word for a twist at the end which we don’t really see coming nor care about either, so don’t worry too much about it. Basically, they’re just two old warhorses who decide to break out together… with a little help from some badass Muslim gang leader Javed (Faram Tahir – Iron Man). Meanwhile, everyone is putting pressure on Hobbes to get to Mannheim, so the idea is to break Breslin to get to Rottmayer. It’s a case of who is gonna break first? The Tomb or Ray Breslin.
Stallone is no stranger to prison movies. He misfired early in his career with the melodramatic and painfully low-action Lock Up. He got frozen in stasis in Demolition Man for a crime he didn’t commit, and spent time in gen-pop with fellow action hero Kurt Russell in Tango & Cash. Speaking of Tango & Cash, I really wish Escape Plan played along similar lines. Sure there is chemistry between Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but their characters don’t buzz off each other as well as Ray Tango and Gabe Cash. There’s not enough contrast between Breslin and Rottmayer to make the film super fun. Instead they kinda just get on with helping each other with the occasional joke tucked away here and there. It’s much less Cain & Abel and way more Bill Withers.
The Arnold vs. Stallone thing has been around ever since they were dominating the box office in the 80’s, and they were very aware of it themselves. When I was a kid I read an article about how Stallone and Schwarzenegger hated each other. This was prior to the Planet Hollywood days, where the pair (along with Bruce Willis) teamed up to create a chain of movie-themed restaurants. As A-list leading men, they were the top of the food chain. They’d compete over scripts, over kill-counts, over who had the biggest guns.
Then there’d be the jabs in their movies. Where Arnold stands in front of a huge cutout of a Rambo poster in Twins, compares his bicep then laughs. How about the references to the Schwarzenegger library in Demolition Man?
At the time, Schwarzenegger was the box office king. Stallone may have had the acting chops, but Arnold made the bigger movies. He was also a bit more of a sneaky bastard. For example, during the making of Red Sonja, Schwarzenegger had an affair with Brigitte Nielsen while filming in Italy. Upon returning to the US, and wanting to cut loose of the reportedly crazy Dane, he introduced her to Stallone at a party. The two went on to have their own affair, and later married (and then divorced). That’s the kind of shit they were doing to each other.
Stallone admits to a violent hatred of Arnold during the time. But now, looking back, they both see how it helped them. They both pushed each other to out-do the other in an endless game of one-upmanship. Like two great boxers circling each other in the rankings, they had to elevate their games so they could prove they were the alpha, the dominant, the number one. Sly and Arnold circled each other too, and their strong back-catalogue of movies are the fruits of their battles. But they never actually fought each other in a movie.
According to the Clash of the Titans special included on the Blu-Ray, there was apparently loads of times when writers and directors tried to get the two biggest action stars to appear together in a movie. It was always timing that caused an issue, and when Arnold went into politics, it seemed that it was never gonna happen. It was only featuring for mere moments in Stallone’s action nostalgia trip Expendables were the embers of a possible future meeting reignited.
This meta-competition does kind of spill over into the film, but in a slightly parodied way. Schwarzengger’s Rottmayer urges Stallone’s Breslin to fight him so they both can get sent to solitary. It’s kind of been done before in the prison break scene in the Running Man. But Escape Plan is a little less serious. Rottmayer laughs at Breslin’s strike, “Hahah, you hit like a vegetarian”, and during the escalating scramble he also gurgles “relax, it’s just pretend”.
They both know it’s pretend, just as we do. It’s a sly wink to their feud, and how even though this clash is in there for fan service, it’s not serious. It doesn’t answer the question as to who would beat who – Rambo or the Terminator?
Escape Plan is not the film to answer that question, which I think disappointed a lot of people. Ignoring that, it’s a perfectly sound slow-burn action movie. But it’s neither action-packed enough or clever enough to really succeed. When you think of prison escape movies, you have to think of the greats like Escape From Alcatraz or Shawkshank Redemption – both totally different films in tone and execution. What they do share in common is an interesting story of suspense and escape.
Both approach the actual prison break in different methods. Alcatraz kind of shows you how he’s gonna do it. It’s all about the process and the tension that the process creates. It’s left ambiguous if Eastwood and co. escape in the end, or if he’s actual guilty and deserved of being in the prison in the first place. Shawshank goes the other way by saving the actual escape and how it’s executed to the end. Kind of like Ocean’s Eleven, the satisfaction of the movie is how the escape is pulled off.
Escape Plan does neither. We never really know what Breslin is thinking, what his Plan B is, and it’s never clever enough for us to go “aaaahh” with any satisfaction. The first escape is kind of cool, but getting out of the tomb instead falls more along the lines of Fortress where the actual escape goes wrong and they just sort of have to muddle through it with guns. Now I loved Fortress – I must have rented that motherfucker a hundred times back in the day – and I’m gonna go out on a limb by saying it’s better film than Escape Plan.
For one, the stakes are higher for Christopher Lambert’s (Mortal Kombat) Brennick character (his pregnant wife is gonna have his unborn child stolen), he’s got a more interesting extended group of prisoner buddies, and the baddie is just a total bastard; Kurtwood Smith (Robocop) is a weird cyborg, obsessed with Brennick’s wife and wants to keep their child to raise as his own.
Compare this to Jim Caviezel’s Hobbes, who is the well-dressed (in black, it’s always all black or all white), super precise, says-everything-quietly-because-it’s-intimidating, prototypical corporate bastard. He’s only a shit because he’s paid to be. There’s little character there, despite Cavizel’s best efforts. The back up crew aren’t really used either, and they’re a solid bunch. Sam Neil as the doctor? His fate is left unresolved, nor do we ever know why he’s there n the first place. 50 Cent and Amy Ryan are again just sort of in the background, doing stuff. There’s a little sexy tension between her and Stallone, but that’s about it. Only Vinnie Jones tends to get some good moments, and his final battle with Stallone ends in a satisfying way.
Escape Plan is a Stallone vehicle. Let’s get this straight. Arnold plays second fiddle here but that’s okay. They’re bros. And despite all the negatively, it’s hard to deny the chemistry between the two. It made me smile to see them both together, and I don’t know if this sort of film would have worked if it had been made in their prime. Similar to De Niro and Pacino going head-to-head in Heat as the two best actors in the world, it took a bit of maturity for both to work well together on screen.
Plus, there are some good action moments. Arnie gets a hold of an M60 and guns down legions of guards (sadly CGI blood, not squibs), the design of the prison, the guard’s suits, and some of the actual escape plan itself are all kind of cool. From a production design perspective it’s really well done. Not too sure on the grey goatee for Arnold, but there’s plenty of vein-throbbing forearm action from Stallone too. Overall, I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I saw it at the cinema.
Still, as a meeting of the two greatest action heroes of all time, Escape Plan isn’t what we’d hoped for. Some people would argue that getting our hopes up was a futile enterprise, that nothing could ever match our imaginations. But I continue to believe that both Stallone and Schwarzenegger have still got it in them. With the right script and the right director I think there’s still time for their De Niro and Pacino moment, for their Heat. Until then, Escape Plan will have to do. Get it watched.