Friday, October 18, 2013

Escape Plan: A breakout surprise

Escape Plan (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Sometimes it pays to approach a film with diminished expectations.

After the comic book nonsense of both Expendables flicks, not to mention January’s distastefully trashy Bullet to the Head, I held out little hope for Sylvester Stallone’s recent return to the big screen.

Although trapped in a maximum-security prison that offers little hope for any sort of
escape plan, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone, left) and Emil Rottmayer (Arnold
Schwarzenegger) have a few ideas ... all of them highly dangerous, of course, and
with little chance of success. But it's not like they have anything else to do...
And although Arnold Schwarzenegger cleverly parodied his advancing age in The Last Stand, also released in January, box-office disinterest made that little action flick’s title seem prophetic, with respect to his career.

I therefore haven’t been surprised by the disinterest in Escape Plan, which arrives in theaters today after a rather lackluster publicity campaign.

Which just goes to show the folly of jumping to conclusions. Swedish-born director Mikael Håfström has uncorked a tidy little thriller, which gets much of its juice from a clever script by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller. The premise is intriguing, the execution is engaging — if occasionally burdened by exploitation flick clichés — and, yes, Stallone and Schwarzenegger acquit themselves honorably.

Indeed, they’re perfectly cast in this twisty prison saga, which seems to have been shaped with their strengths — and acting limitations — in mind. Håfström allows them to do what they do best, and they do it well; the result certainly won’t be more than a footnote in cinema history, but it’s a reasonably entertaining way to spend a night at the movies.

Ray Breslin (Stallone) has a most unusual career: He’s a structural engineer who specializes in prison design, or — more precisely — the weaknesses of such institutions. As the “field agent” half of the Los Angeles-based security firm Breslin-Clark, he allows himself to be incarcerated into various prisons as an apparent felon, in order to escape and thus expose design and (more frequently) staffing weaknesses.

Although ostensibly on his own, Breslin always is monitored by his operational partners: handler Abigail Ross (Amy Ryan) and genius hacker Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). Partner Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio) acts as the company “face,” securing the assignments and managing the tidy sums that Breslin charges for his talents.

Following the completion of yet another routine assignment, Breslin is offered a tantalizing challenge by CIA operative Jessica Miller (Caitriona Balfe). Wanting to remove the political stink left by a decade’s worth of nasty headlines concerning Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, shadowy U.S. black-ops agencies have collaborated to construct a top-secret über-prison at an undisclosed location, well away from prying media eyes. The goal is to keep its dangerous occupants locked up, no matter how clever — or desperate — they might be.

That’s where Breslin comes in: If he can’t break out, then All Concerned will be satisfied that their “detention center” lives up to its promise.

Unfortunately, things don’t go quite as planned ... which comes as no surprise to us viewers, of course. Breslin’s tracking chip is savagely removed; he’s beaten by guards; and his attempted use of the fail-safe “evacuation code” draws nothing but an amused grin from warden Willard Hobbes (Jim Caviezel).

Breslin has been dumped into this high-tech facility on purpose, and all his “keys” have been thrown away. But why?

Before he begins to suss out possible answers, Breslin is surprised by the helpful and downright friendly behavior of fellow prisoner Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger). But while Rottmayer apparently can protect Breslin from the other inmates, that doesn’t help with the bigger picture; the situation seems hopeless.

Chapman and Keller’s scenario is a riff on every classic heist thriller, all of which follow the same pattern: First set up “foolproof” security measures, showing us every intricate detail, and then grant our heroes the means to exploit subtle flaws in order to defeat said measures.

And, so, Breslin faces his own impossible challenge. Cameras are everywhere; prisoners are electronically tracked by concealed bar codes in their clothing; individual cell walls are transparent, affording no privacy; all cells are built well above floor level; all guards wear dark masks, to conceal their identities and thus prevent any means of cozying up to a given individual; and so forth.

The prison is a genius set by production designer Barry Chusid, whose various genre credits include The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and the fan-beloved Serenity. His work here is damn impressive: worthy of the volcano lair that Ken Adam built for You Only Live Twice, which was a jaw-dropping milestone back in 1967.

One of this film’s key mysteries concerns the prison’s actual location, and the answer to that question is a genuine surprise, which further enhances the story’s “impossible mission” tension.

Håfström’s most important contribution is his insistence that this material be played straight; our heroes don’t drop jokey one-liners, and there’s no sense that whatever follows will be good-ol’-boy child’s play (as with both Expendables entries).

Granted, it’s an eyebrow-raiser to accept that Stallone is a genius engineer, scientist, metallurgist and even astronavigator, not to mention his ability to MacGyver a helpful gadget from rather sketchy raw materials. But Stallone always has been good with grim resolve, and that turns out to be Breslin’s primary emotion; the script even offers a good reason for this attitude.

Schwarzenegger actually comes off better, displaying levels of presence and charisma that hearken back to his glory days. If we’re not allowed to understand Rottmayer’s motivations — his eager cooperation seems so suspicious — at least ol’ Arnie successfully sells the congeniality that goes with it.

And, yes, thanks to cinematographer Brendan Galvin’s tight close-ups — and the fact that most of this prison’s “worst of the worst” felons are played by bit players and stuntmen who are shorter than our stars — the inevitable mano-a-mano beat-downs are persuasively choreographed ... and much more credible than, say, Stallone’s laughably overmatched fracas with the younger, larger and far tougher Jason Momoa, in the aforementioned Bullet to the Head.

All this said, both Stallone and Schwarzenegger nonetheless have an acting range that extends no further than A to B, which allows Caviezel to steal the show. His subtlety is marvelous, particularly the half-smile that surfaces every time one of Hobbes’ “boys” misbehaves. Caviezel is the coolest villain I’ve seen in awhile, and his vile behavior here might upset folks who’ve grown fond of his kinder and gentler self on TV’s Person of Interest.

The similarly talented Sam Neill also makes the most of his small part as Kyrie, the prison doctor: an inherently good man who begins to wonder if he has accepted the wrong assignment. Veteran tough guy Vinnie Jones is appropriately nasty as Hobbes’ thuggish lieutenant, Drake.

Its virtues notwithstanding, Chapman and Keller’s script doesn’t always stand up to close scrutiny, starting with the biggest elephant in the room: It’s difficult to believe that so much money would be spent to “bury” mega-baddies in such a facility, lost to public view for all time, when it would be easier and cheaper to kill them. (Either way, nobody would know, right?)

I also was disappointed by the fact that Abigail and Hush, despite their mounting concern and much-ballyhooed investigative and computer skills, remain on the sidelines. Indeed, they play no part whatsoever in the climactic third act, which is simply wrong.

Editor Elliot Greenberg keeps things going at a good clip, efficiently concealing the slightly too-long running time of 116 minutes. Composer Alex Heffes’ overbearing score, on the other hand, is painfully clumsy, badly placed and often irritating.

For the most part, though, this is an entertaining action flick that builds to a highly satisfying conclusion. I guess Stallone and Schwarzenegger do have some big-screen life left in them.

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