A couple of years ago, when it was announced that Arnold Schwarzenegger would appear in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2010), I imagined something akin to the iconic scene in Heat (1995) wherein Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared the screen for the first time in their illustrious careers. I don’t mean in terms of intelligence obviously. Pacino and De Niro are award-winning thespians, whereas Stallone and Schwarzenegger built their reputation on dumb action schlock. Still, I hoped the producers would understand that the pleasure lies in seeing the two stars act together, not in watching them wink at the camera and reference past exploits.
Director Mikael Håfström gets it, which makes Escape Plan a surprising delight, or perhaps just a guilty pleasure. The plot centers on Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone), a professional escape artist hired to test the security of the Tomb: a secret prison where governments can hold and “question” suspected terrorists indefinitely without due process. Once there, our hero is framed, of course, forcing him to team up with fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in order to break out. It says something about our collective renouncement of Guantanamo Bay that we can buy into this premise and even root for alleged war criminals, though I should note that no Islamic combatant makes it out alive.
Besides, the whole thing serves as a mere pretext to keep our two leads together in a confined space. To pass the time, Escape Plan provides them with bizarrely intelligent characters, by which I mean that Ray can hack into an electronic lock using nothing more than a chewed-up ball of paper and a carton of milk. I’m unclear as to why prison officials should consider this a security flaw and expect the average convict to do the same, but never mind. What matters is that Stallone gets to play MacGyver, except with bigger muscles and even more shoddy physics helping the cause.
This leaves his co-star in Escape Plan with the unlikely role of comic relief, as Emil keeps having to distract the corrupt warden, Hobbes, played by Jim Caviezel as a mustache-twirling cartoon villain minus the mustache. There’s something enchantingly surreal about watching a former US governor tell Jesus from The Passion of the Christ (2004) to lick his balls, and Schwarzenegger lands every punch line with pitch-perfect accuracy, proving himself a far better actor than we remembered him.
Escape Plan features other big names, including Vincent D’Onofrio, 50 Cent, Amy Ryan, Vinnie Jones, and Sam Neill. Each appears in only a handful of scenes, making it difficult to guess who will play a key role in Ray’s convoluted scheme. More to the point, their limited presence keeps the focus on our two protagonists, who spend the brunt of the movie courting each other in that macho, buddy-cop sort of way. In fact, a full hour and a half flies by before Schwarzenegger picks up a machine gun.
That reminds me. A funny thing happened halfway into the screening. Just as Ray was putting into action the first phase of his ploy, I felt my heart sink at the thought of Escape Plan degenerating into yet another balls-to-the-walls action flick. I then realised that, throughout the eighties, it was Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s performances that kept me interested in their stunt-filled blockbusters, not the other way around. The fact that our hero’s initial escapade turns out a false alarm demonstrates how well Håfström understands the appeal of his movie.
Look, I’m not suggesting Escape Plan constitutes a brilliant cinematic experience or even a remotely intelligent one. However, the film strikes me as dumb in a clever way if that makes any sense. It’s got a fun, outlandish premise and a couple of neat twists you won’t necessarily see coming. Granted, I doubt the details of the plot would hold up to scrutiny, but we believe in them at the time because Stallone and Schwarzenegger sell every moment with the sort of screen presence that can only be achieved after years of experience. Now that’s how you use veteran stars.