All nostalgic aspects aside, one of the reasons I prefer the Sylvester Stallone-Arnold Schwarzenegger jailhouse breakout film ESCAPE PLAN to any of the EXPENDABLES movies is simple. If you're going to put two of the biggest action stars of all time in a film together, let's actually let them interact beyond a few jokes and winks as they stand side by side. In ESCAPE PLAN, they actually talk, scheme, work together, and of course fight like a proper team, and not like guys posing for pictures to use for publicity stills.
Directed by the Swedish-born filmmaker Mikael Håfström (1408, DERAILED, THE RITE), this film still has the EXPENDABLES version of physics-bending stunts, impossible outcomes and laugh-out-loud plot twists, but it's also ridiculously entertaining, if not always for the right reasons.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, the man who literally wrote the book on fortifying prisons, which he put together by literally arranging to get put in prisons all over the country and then busting out to exploit their security flaws. The film opens with one such escape, but we don't get to see exactly how Breslin does it until the prison's warden comes into Breslin's office (run by Lester Clark, played by Vincent D'Onofrio) and is given the blow-by-bow rundown of the complicated breakout. Also working with Breslin are his computer whiz Hush (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) and Abigail (Amy Ryan, whom I haven't seen in a film since 2011's WIN WIN).
When a representative of an off-the-grid prison for high-profile prisoners (mostly terrorists—domestic or otherwise) wants to bring Breslin in for double his usual salary, the team is hesitant since they aren't allowed to know where the prison is. But naturally he takes the gig and is taken almost immediately to the high-tech operation called "The Tomb."
Almost immediately, Breslin knows there is something amiss when the warden he was supposed to meet has been replaced by the sadistic Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel, in extra-weasel mode) and his right-hand thug (Vinnie Jones). When Breslin becomes a target of violence by other prisoners, inmate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) steps in and makes fast friends with him.
The rest of the film is them plotting and failing and plotting again of the big escape. It just so happens that the warden has read Breslin's book, forcing the escape artist to be ever more clever. I won't ruin a couple of the surprises in ESCAPE PLAN, but they're pretty amusing. I loved how Stallone has to become something of a MacGyver in order to enact his plans, and I was especially impressed with Arnold's acting in this one. There is one scene where he has to pretend like he's having a mental freakout, and he starts screaming in German; I don't think I've ever found him more terrifying.
Sure, Caviezel is trying way too hard to evil, and Vinne Jones (for once) isn't trying hard enough. Yes, it's weird when Sam Neill shows up as the prison doctor in scenes that feel like they were inserted months later. And maybe there are a few too many double crosses and triple crosses. But the action sequences are pretty solid without feeling overcooked, with maybe the climax as the exception.
For the most part, our two leads don't spend the entire film trying to out-smartass each other. I can't emphasize enough how great it is to see these two men actually acting together. ESCAPE PLAN is a little rough around the edges, but so are its stars, and that's okay. These guys seem to play well together, and with a little encouragement, they might actually have careers ahead of them.