Escape Plan is the second of Sylvester Stallone’s unusually elegant 2013 star vehicles. Like the underappreciated Bullet to the Head, this film can be said to sport a legitimate look: a sleek gray metallic sheen that director Mikael Håfström and his collaborators periodically splash with flamboyantly bright neon reds, yellows, and greens. The predominant setting is also boffo: a high-tech futuristic prison that suggests an erector set that’s been assembled in the shape of a beehive. Each individual cell is fashioned from reinforced glass, so that the highly volatile prisoners never, theoretically, have a moment to themselves to hatch a titular scheme (though no authority figures seem to mind the macho lunch chats that apparently last hours). And solitary confinement is almost literally hell: several hours in front of high-voltage lamps that immediately dehydrate the misbehaving target to the point of near-death. Presiding over this monument to cruel and unusual punishment is the usual evil warden (Jim Caviezel), who oversees an army of guards who’re clad in pitch-black gear that includes an eerie, blank mask that almost resembles a face from a deck of playing cards, with eyes that reflect the prisoners’ anguish right back at them.
Referred to as the Tomb, this prison, which could have sprung from the work of Franz Kafka or Philip K. Dick or Harlan Ellison, is obviously intended to suggest a milder version of a variety of war institutions that exist around the world, many with American collusion, that serve to strip a prisoner of any sense of individuality or humanity. (There’s even a water-boarding scene late in the film, lest we risk missing the point.) The Tomb is both the best and the worst thing about Escape Plan: It initially suggests that we’re watching an unusually timely, liberal-minded, and damn-near parodic Stallone film, but it’s too strong and loaded a concept for what’s revealed to be essentially just another over-plotted and somewhat incoherent connect-the-dots buddy movie. This arresting vision of fascism isn’t earned.
But there are simple pleasures. Stallone underplays niftily here in a fashion that’s reminiscent of his work in Bullet to the Head, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is almost his version of charming as a mastermind who helps Stallone’s Ray Breslin in his quest to escape the Tomb after the latter falls victim to the usual varieties of double-crossing. The prison escape that opens the film is crisply directed, and the midpoint twist, elaborating on the nature of the Tomb’s location, is satisfyingly perverse. Escape Plan is ultimately upper-middle-tier Stallone: an enjoyably workmanlike red-meat movie that has the bad manners to prime you for something legitimately imaginative, and relevant, before moving onward down the checklist of requisite action-movie mayhem.
This image is a nice surprise in a realm that’s full of impersonally flawless digital presentations of action titles. Considering this context, foreground image clarity is unsurprisingly superb, but depth is also notably detailed. Blacks are well-differentiated, and the actors’ skin actually resembles skin with all its accompanying human textures, rather than the cartoonish wax figurines that often populate the contemporary glossy action Blu-ray. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is an action fan’s dream: fully immersive and sensitive to the nuances of the various geographies that figure into the key set pieces. An attentive transfer.
The audio commentary by director Mikael Håfström and co-writer Miles Chapman is the most informative feature, but it’s a dry and routine discussion of scene changes, location scouting, fight choreography, and so forth. It’s a regret that none of the stars were able to participate. The "Maximum Security: The Real-Life Tomb" supplement could have been promising, but the 20-minute running time doesn’t allow for much depth of coverage. Everything else is purely routine EPK fodder.
This almost weirdly resonant Sylvester Stallone vehicle nets an attractive transfer that should please hardcore action fans and genre tourists alike.