Harsh Texture

Escape Plan

A surprisingly effective action film send up of the prison-industrial complex starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Did they know what kind of film they were making?

Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) makes a living escaping from prisons. He creates a ruse whereby he arrives as a regular prisoner, unbeknownst to the guards or the warden. Over the span of weeks he methodically searches for weaknesses in the structure and routine. After making his escape, Breslin immediately returns to the prison to berate the warden and demand changes.

After taking a shady offer to test the ultimate prison, Breslin is kidnapped off the streets of New Orleans. He awakens in an underground compound, staffed with masked guards, and presided over by a warden (Jim Caviezel) who used Breslin’s published book to construct the prison.

Sure there have been movies and documentaries poking at the prison-industrial complex, extraordinary rendition, and the endless, amorphous, war on terror. They tend to be stuffy affairs, prestige projects for liberal lions, and immediately fall into obscurity. It is ironic then that the most successful film to address these themes was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight? It rolled out the sins of the Bush administration but associated them with Batman not the Joker, and underscored all its points with explosions, fights, and CGI effects. Maybe it was a sign that this sort of social commentary was suited to action films.

“Escape Plan” succeeds similarly to “The Dark Knight”. It benefits greatly from its casting. It’s not just that the plot is a very Stallone-sian mish mash of betrayal and hard-earned revenge, but that its Stallone and Schwarzenegger themselves playing victims to the modern police state. In the eighties both jockeyed to embody the patriotism of Reagan’s America. So Stallone led John Rambo back to Vietnam to belatedly win that war single handedly; to have Rocky Balboa knock off the personification of Soviet strength; and to hook up with the Taliban in their war against the Soviets.

Schwarzenegger didn’t often venture out of the Western Hemisphere but he spent a number of films fighting skirmishes against the banana republics in Central and South America at the time when US soldiers were active in Salvador and Guatemala.

To cast both these iconic actors as victims of the status quo scores a deep disillusionment that would feel unspectacular from someone like Robert Redford or Matt Damon. It can be questioned whether Stallone or Schwarzenegger realized what kind of film they were making, or if they were at the service of director Mikael Hafstrom who shouldn’t be discounted given his continued success with exploiting established screen personas to enrichen genre entertainment (see also his “1408”). But truth be told, Schwarzenegger has proved willing to take on riskier roles as he seeks to reestablish his cinema fame, as in “Safe House” also from 2014. For Stallone, it may be enough that the script features many of his most cherished hallmarks. Betrayal by a trusted friend/institution, a lost love, the opportunity to play a hardscrabble man of supernatural talent, all these an ideal Stallone role makes.

Escape Plan feels like a big budget pastiche of the Cube or Fortress. Although where those films doubled down on allegory and science fiction, Break doggedly keeps itself in reality. As Stallone pieces together the true nature of his whereabouts it opens up plausible scientific means of escape. It also plays into Stallones current physicality. He’s always been best as a physical presence, and nothing punctures this mystique faster than having him deliver multiple lines of dialog. Thankfully “Escape Plan” spares us any soliloquy, keeping Stallone agreeably taciturn. However this means that the film fully never explains its world. You are free to read it as a repudiation of Obama or even Bush, their policies and tactics, or of the status quo writ large. Currently there’s a growing debate over mass incarceration and prison privatisation, but who would ever have thought that the longest glimpse into that culture would’ve come courtesy of a Stallone actioner?

Like Stallone’s recent films post the Rocky/Rambo comeback, he surrounds himself with an absolutely top notch cast of actors. Part of the joy of watching this film cold for the first time is how each familiar face is doled out a scene at a time. Starting with Stallone, then Amy Ryan and 50 Cent (who actually handles himself well here), to Vincent D’Onofrio, to Jim Caviezel, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and finally Sam Neill. Unlike the ensemble for “Bullet to the Head”, each is on their game.

Despite all this, and unlike “The Dark Knight”, “Escape Plan” landed with a thud during its theatrical run. I would predict this will have a long life in rotation on cable though, there’s too much here done well.

Published: Aug. 26, 2018, 1:41 p.m.
Updated: May 11, 2019, 2:48 p.m.