If this were 1988, the world would stop for “Escape Plan,” which finally pairs Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as above-the-title talents. The duo haven’t been able to keep themselves from looking backwards in recent films: both seem in denial of their advanced ages, with Schwarzenegger taking on roles fit for someone two decades younger, and Stallone content to play his greatest hits, sometimes in duet form with the “Expendables” movies. Appropriately, “Escape Plan” also doesn’t feel as if it’s made for this era, but amusingly seems like a relic of the early aughts, when Stallone was fronting dubious direct-to-video schlock, Schwarzenegger was a declining attraction, and getting 50 Cent in a supporting role seemed like a major coup.
Those looking for a true even-handed matchup for the two stars will be disappointed that this is a Stallone picture through and through. He plays Ray Breslin, a security adviser who poses as a convict in order to test, and exploit, the structural flaws of prison security systems. Somehow, he’s made millions off this profession, and his escape tactics suggest he’s something of a modern-day MacGyver. Don’t stress yourself: in a role that suggests a savant of sorts, Stallone gives a typically lumbering, monosyllabic performance. Stallone’s never been the most expressive of actors, but this characterization doesn’t even sniff the depth of his third-tier characters like Barney Ross, Judge Dredd or John Spartan.
Breslin works underneath a shady boss played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who loads his character with many tics, primarily a phony Midwestern drawl and a habit of applying hand lotion. With him, Breslin trusts the pitch for his new job: off-market CIA interests are exploring the idea of a new prison and are willing to offer a tidy $5 million if Breslin will allow himself to be abducted and taken there. There’s a difference between practical intelligence and flat-out magic, but everyone seems to trust Breslin is capable of the latter despite never having seen or heard of this prison previously, attempting to break out with absolutely no help coming from the outside. Does anyone realize this man is in his late sixties? The biggest laugh comes from how the prison, where criminals are kept without due process, is plan B after the CIA declared “the end of extraordinary rendition.” Sure, boss. Sure.
Breslin consents to a pretty obvious plan to kill him, before waking up in a glass cell. For a million (billion?) dollar independent prison, the idea of underground glass cells doesn’t seem revolutionary, though it at least believably seems like a challenge to Breslin. He soon realizes that it’s a trap when his evacuation code doesn’t work, and the warden who knows his real identity isn’t present. Breslin is now a real inmate, and he has to rely on a wily collaborator named Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) in order to get free.
The first act of “Escape Plan” is creaky and unconvincing, an incredibly low-energy collection of footage slapped together like a messy Carnegie Deli sandwich. Every action beat feels a second too slow, every line is delivered too casually. Director Mikael Hafstrom doesn’t seem to realize that action movies aren’t just about violence (which he also shoots poorly), but about keeping the dialogue scenes punchy and quick. They can be stuffed with clever bon mots and witty exchanges (neither found here), but adding speedy padding in between confrontations is a necessity. Hafstrom instead captures these moments as if they are dull mini-dramas themselves: perhaps Stallone exerted enough force on set to make sure all his flirty exchanges with Amy Ryan stayed in the film, no matter how unnecessary. Hafstrom has a pedigree, having directed the box office hit “1408” a long time ago, but clout isn’t worth as much when a camera’s the only thing protecting you from Stallone’s impressively ‘roided-out frame.
The early scenes with Stallone and Schwarzenegger are similarly deadening. Chances are, you’ll be able to wheel out a 95 year old Gene Hackman one day to bring gravitas to the set. The same can’t be said for the aging Stallone and Schwarzenegger, neither of whom can generate electricity without the physicality that has long since left them behind. A good director can work around this: perhaps Walter Hill, who earlier this year brought a graceful economy of storytelling to Stallone’s “Bullet To The Head.” Instead, this reminds of Gary Fleder’s unfortunate “Runaway Jury,” which had the audacity to feature a scene with the soon-to-retire Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, cramping them inside a men’s room and turning the entire affair into a shot-reverse shot disaster where you couldn’t believe the two of them were in the same room together. In the early moments between Stallone and Schwarzenegger, you don’t even get the pleasure of seeing their faces together in the frame. When they start throwing fists with the sort of ferocity that makes someone blow out their back, you can guess at any given point which one of them was sitting in their trailer while the other went through the motions.
“Escape Plan” picks up the more these two appear together, and at about the midway point, you finally see a flicker of the promise that existed in fans’ heads when they dreamed of a team-up. Stallone’s always had a vain working-class charm to his tough guys, and here it’s balanced out by Schwarzenegger’s gregarious obliviousness. Stallone thinks he’s hiding how big he thinks he is, which has always been appealing, but Schwarzenegger is nakedly embracing his size, and for brief moments, even the most pessimistic action fan has to smile at their creaky chemistry. “Escape Plan” also doesn’t forget that the heroes are only as good as their villains, and Jim Caviezel adopts a sing-song delivery and peculiar enunciation to a feature-length Christopher Walken impersonation, bringing an off-brand menace to his sadistic, nattily-dressed warden. Similarly, Vinnie Jones is a hoot as a single-minded grunt without a lot of affection for the muscled duo.
“Escape Plan” deserves some credit for gradually rising from abysmal to almost-mediocre, though it’s needlessly complicated in every step of the way. Breslin’s techie assistance from Ryan and 50 Cent (actually loose and comfortable in a throwaway role) never really comes into play, a distracting duo that spend the film’s runtime dopily wondering, “Where’s Breslin?” and generally wasting the audience’s time. And much is made of the prison doctor played by much-missed Sam Neill, who mostly contributes to the film by actually having to look up the Hippocratic Oath. But even when the warden realizes he’s dealing with Breslin, why does he not realize that the man keeps making a bee-line towards the towering Austrian in the salt-and-pepper beard? How does no one think these two should be permanently separated? And why, if the goal is to double cross and bury Breslin forever, does no one think to just kill him? But disregarding the competence of Hafstrom and the writing team of Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko, there’s simply a sad truth: these two stars move like molasses, bones and joints nearly creaking audibly as they make their way from a prison fence to a lunch table. A moment where Stallone lifts and suplexes Schwarzenegger is surely more fantastical than just about anything you’ll see in the next “The Hobbit” movie. There’s a way to make this movie in a way that guarantees its genre excellence. And the primary strategy there involves a time machine back to 1988. [D+]