Monday, November 4, 2013

Escape Plan

Alternate Title:  The Count of Rocky Conan

One sentence synopsis:      A profession prison breaker must escape a secret maximum-security facility in an unknown location with the help of a fellow inmate.

Things Havoc liked:  Like Pacific Rim before it, Escape Plan begins with an excellent sequence. Sylvester Stallone is locked up in a federal prison for some unspecified crime, and spends days simply observing his surroundings, the routine of the guards and prisoners, the procedures for dealing with everything from fights to prisoner escort to locking someone in isolation. This goes on for more than five minutes, all without explanation or context, and then all of a sudden, Stallone is out of the prison. He escapes with the help of an outsider, is taken to a phone booth, and dials a number while state policemen surround him with drawn guns. And then, having been brought back to the prison, Stallone and the man he called sit down with the warden and explain, in detail, how it was that he escaped, for you see, Stallone is a professional prison-break artist, hired by the government to test the security of it's maximum security federal penitentiaries.

So begins Escape Plan, an action vehicle for two of the most legendary action stars of my childhood, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Both now old men, no longer able to draw quite as large an audience by themselves, Stallone and Schwarzenegger have made a habit of pooling their talents in recent years, beginning with the Expendables and segueing into this. Though Stallone is still more than capable of horrifically abusing himself in the quest for an action shot, it's Schwarzenegger who seems to be the only one actually aware of what this movie is supposed to be, a retread of the 80s classics of yesteryear. To this end, Arnold brings his one-liner-issuing charm, effortlessly acting everyone else off the screen (more on this later) as he clearly has fun with the material. Action shots are intentionally set up to hearken back to the glory days of such films as Predator or Commando, and the movie even features a lengthy sequence wherein Arnold launches into a diatribe in his ever-unique style, save that this time he does so in his native German, which if nothing else is something I haven't seen before.

Things Havoc disliked:  Ohhh boy...

So I don't think I'm gonna shock anyone by informing them that this movie is stupid. I certainly wasn't shocked by that fact. What did shock me was how incompetent it was. One would expect that a film with Schwarzenegger and Stallone to have at least competency in the fundamental mechanics of action films (as the Expendables series did), but unfortunately the director this time is Mikael Håfström (of 1408), and the scriptwriting team the same one that brought you Machine Gun Preacher and Mirror Mirror. And while this lack of experience shows in many places, one of the major ones is that they seem to have made an action movie without any goddamn action.

Okay, yes, that's an exaggeration, but it is seriously two thirds of the movie before any action shows up, and when it does it feels almost perfunctory, an element to be gotten out of the way and dispensed with rather than celebrated. What does the movie offer us in return? Plot and dialogue, both from our leads, two men famous for their inability to deliver a line in anything but a campy, overwrought fashion, or from our main villain, a sadistic Blackwater-funded prison warden played by Jesus Christ himself, Jim Caviziel. What camp nightmare of a Bond movie Caviziel pulled this character out of, I cannot fathom, but while I've never been a great fan of his, this performance is far, FAR worse than anything I imagined seeing from him. His warden is a fastidious nut, fond of taunting our heroes for no reason whatsoever. Informed that a prison break is fomenting, he proceeds to take the seventeen steps required for him to be unable to foil it, including trusting the prisoner who hates him, giving in to absurd, unexplained requests on the part of random prisoners, assuming that he has captured Stallone and Schwarzenegger in inescapable death traps/corners/isolated rooms from which they could not possibly escape unlike the previous sixteen times, etc. Moreover, instead of camping the hell out of the performance, which might have saved it, Caviziel plays the character in a sort of ironic undertone, unimpressed by anything that's going on, never harried, looking almost bored save for when it's time to grin orgasmically (yes, it's possible to grin in such a way) at the prospect of having "beaten" one of the prisoners. So detached is this guy that when faced with impending death (it's an action movie, you know how it ends), he can't muster any reaction but a bored shrug.

Other than Caviziel, the movie is not merely incompetent, but uninterestingly so (yes, it's also possible to be fascinatingly incompetent. My reviews, my rules.) Enemy soldiers suffer from the Stormtrooper effect, in which eighty-seven highly-trained mercenaries with fully automatic rifles are unable to hit men twenty feet in front of them with ten thousand rounds of ammunition (though they are, of course, able to hit the thin metal handrail in front of him a hundred times each). Such guards as have been identified by name or nickname are dispatched in reverse order of total screentime. The hero will suffer a 'setback' that will cause him to lose hope until the other hero rallies him by encouraging him to explain his backstory to the audience (the cathartic effects of sudden exposition dumps really should be investigated by doctors). Meanwhile, the remainder of the surprisingly-large cast suffers varying fates (the actors I mean, not the characters). Sam Niel, playing the prison doctor, seems to be under the terrible misimpression that he is in a movie with dramatic weight and heft. He plays his scenes with the solemnity of a deacon, agonizing in his office about whether it is "right" to imprison people in illegal black ops prisons for no reason other than corporate say-so and then torture them medically (which leads me to a question, given the prison's remote and secret nature, do the officials, administrators, and literally hundreds of guards all live on-site?). Vinnie Jones (Lock Stock, Snatch) gets to play a standard Vinnie Jones role without any of the quirkiness he is accustomed to, while Faran Tahir (Star Trek) provides one of the few actually interesting side characters, as an Arab "terrorist" of some sort who uses the ignorance of his captors concerning Islam to hide his actual purposes in helping the heroes escape. Meanwhile, back at home, Stallone is ably assisted by his team of completely useless idiots, specifically Amy Ryan, who has nothing to do, and (of all people) Fifty Cent, who (I'm not making this up) plays the computer hacker trying to find Stallone after he is abducted and thrown in prison. Rounding this Oscar-worthy cast out is Vincent D'Onofrio, playing Stallone's boss, who once again is under the terrible delusion that he is capable of appearing intimidating and authoritative, despite nearly thirty years of material on film to prove that he cannot.

Oh I could go on and on about all the thousands of massive, cavernous plot holes in this film... so I will. For instance, the prison's location is a tightly guarded secret, from the inmates as well as the outside world, yet later on in the film, one prisoner is brought out of the prison for the flimsiest of reasons, enabling him to discover naturally and automatically where the prison is actually located. The prison brims with hi-tech security systems and hyper-trained guards, yet never once is someone's cell tossed, never once is someone frisked following a suspicious encounter with other prisoners. Surveillance cameras follow the prisoners in every moment of their existence, yet always from a respectful distance, never close enough to actually determine what they are doing or saying, and of course nobody ever thinks to bug their conversations, not even within their cells. But the biggest one of all was one that occurred to me at the beginning of the film. Confronted with men "too dangerous to be let out", which would be the more rational solution: Construct an impossible prison in the middle of nowhere so secret that nobody ever heard of it, confine them there under hundreds of guards at fantastic expense, spending man-months of time and untold millions of dollars to ensure that none of them can ever escape into a world that believes them dead? Or shooting each of them in the head?

Final thoughts:   Of course I know that "rational" is the wrong term to judge a film like this on, but frankly, if the movie's not going to do it's part by entertaining me, I feel no compunctions about bringing such subjects up. Escape Plan is not an evil or despicable movie, but it is a very, very bad one, as I'm certain every one of you was already aware from having seen the trailers. It fails not merely on the level of great cinema, but also on the level of a stupid popcorn action flick. Expendables 1 & 2, both of which were equally brainless, were exciting, lovingly-crafted action romps, and I rewarded their efforts accordingly. Escape Plan on the other hand is what happens when you get the producers of "A Good Day to Die Hard" and tell them to try their hand at another 80s action classic. Even the die-hard Arnold fan in me couldn't muster more than a few minutes of interest, and then only in the scenes actively aping the better films of yesteryear.

The Expendables proved, conclusively, that old though they may be, Stallone and Schwarzenegger and others of their generation of action stars can still absolutely get it done. Time has moved on from their heyday, yet they have still never been replaced as the Grand Deans of Action Film. Escape Plan is not, as it might be for some, evidence that Arnold and Sylvester are past it. Escape Plan is instead an argument for not letting blithering idiots write and direct films that these men are perfectly capable of making for themselves.

Final Score:  3.5/10

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