Even when considered in the narrow confines of prison films starring either Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, Escape Plan is markedly below par in terms of thrills. Rather, the film’s plot fills a certain narrative niche that these two battle-axes—the former, especially—have come to embrace almost exclusively. Stallone and Schwarzenegger play Breslin and Rottmayer, respectively, two men who find themselves unjustifiably incarcerated in a top-secret privatized prison system, run by Jim Cavieziel’s hammily sadistic Warden Hobbes. State-of-the-art technologies control everything around them, but the design of the place is closer to a low-traffic Costco overseen by a perverse disciplinarian manager. From there, well, you’ve seen the title, right?
Of course, the entire point is that all your damn hard drives and electronic locks are no match for durable workmanship and natural talent, and that all these fancy digital advents are ultimately for naught. Director Mikael Håfström works this archaic attitude into nearly every scene, and though his intentions may be harmlessly nostalgic, the overall effect is repugnant and more than a little pious. (Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head is a smarter, tougher showcase of these outdated ideas.) What Escape Plan’s premise and tone primarily do is allow Stallone to continue to act like an underdog, the kind of role he began his career with, but now feels irrevocably detached from.
Stallone likes playing the unduly ignored and put-upon, and as the model star for a genre that has a long history of being critically derided but celebrated by the public, the personal connection is present. Sadly, the multi-hyphenate continually stops at the water’s edge in this regard, the water being anything resembling self-deprecation or genuine humility. Escape Plan is no exception, as Breslin, who literally wrote the book on prison escapes and security, is expectedly set up as overwhelmingly Christ-like. In comparison, Amy Ryan’s Abigail, Breslin’s colleague, shows up solely to be the butt of bad-cooking jokes and to throw herself at him. (To his credit, Håfström at least has the good sense to limit the appearance of 50 Cent as Breslin’s tech-minded co-worker.) And as to highlight the film’s valuing of God-given talent over the studied sort, the only character to be taken nearly as seriously as Breslin is Faran Tahir’s Javed, a devoutly Muslim prisoner who partners with Breslin and Rottmayer.
Still, Javed’s faith isn’t so divine that the film can’t allow for Schwarzenegger’s eccentric old-timer to suggest that the man’s mother repeatedly blew him, conveyed in a hand motion that defies concise explanation. Indeed, Schwarzenegger shows a willingness to get weird here that allows for some memorable moments, ranging from a crass waterboarding sequence to a bizarre religious rant spoken in German. These crude moments are what pass for lightheartedness in this dim anti-privatization parable, which preaches a familiar strain of cynical, unchallenged self-righteousness in the face of widespread abuse of civil liberties. Elsewhere, the script piles on unnecessary backstory and exposition ad nauseum to give some sense of character to the whole business’s obvious trajectory. Those who pay close attention may even prove unawares that the hopelessly bloated Escape Plan takes nearly two hours to pull off what Face/Off accomplishes, compellingly, in under 30 minutes.