“Escape Plan” finally offers action fans the epic Sylvester Stallone-Arnold Schwarzenegger team-up they’ve been waiting for, but unfortunately it’s 20 years too late.
Mikael Hafstrom’s containment thriller acknowledges the two stars’ advancing age, even as it appropriately celebrates their genre bona fides with a muscular, nostalgic adventure. But “Escape Plan” also serves as its own kind of movie jail for Stallone and Schwarzenegger, because it’s precisely the kind of B-grade hell that underscores their outdated appeal in an era where heroes no longer need to be larger than life.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a security expert who specializes in exposing the weaknesses of maximum-security prisons. Recruited by CIA agent Jessica Miller (Caitriona Balfe) to test a top-secret facility, Breslin adopts the identity of a Spanish fugitive and soon finds himself shipped off to parts unknown.
But upon arrival at the mysterious prison, he discovers that the safeguards he and his partner Lester Clark (50 Cent) installed to ensure his safety have been eliminated, and warden Willard Hobbs (Jim Caviezel) is indifferent to his claims of being innocent.
Teaming up with another inmate named Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) who is as eager to escape as he is, Breslin systematically begins testing the facility’s procedures and searching for weaknesses. But when they discover that the prison is located in a place that makes escape virtually impossible, the pair launch a desperate plan that seems likely to have only one of two outcomes – freedom, or death.
If Stallone has an edge over Schwarzenegger as a star, much less actor, it’s thanks to his (relative) humility. When Stallone launched a comeback in 2006 with “Rocky Balboa,” he eschewed all of the character’s ’80s largesse in favor of an understated art-imitates-life story about a former champ who’s past his prime. Since then, and even in stuff like “The Expendables,” he always seems like the hardest-working actor on screen, and the one who’s unafraid to show vulnerability – or maybe just his age.
In “Escape Plan,” he’s admittedly tougher and more polished than audiences have seen him play in a while, and certainly holds his own against his co-star. But Stallone maintains the same sort of quiet authority here that he used seven years ago to reconnect with audiences, and his performance as Breslin helps make the epic scale of the rest of the film feel believable.
Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, feels like he’s still in superstar mode, almost winking at the camera with a performance that’s bigger than his “Conan”-era muscles. But while there’s undoubtedly something exciting about watching him in action again, opposite the other iconic action star of the 1980s, there’s nothing to his character but charisma, making him almost a comic counterpoint to Stallone’s comparative gravitas.
Character actors in supporting roles – especially Amy Ryan as Abigail, Breslin’s colleague, and Jim Caviezel as the fastidious warden – hint at Hafstrom’s more serious ambitions for the film. But the prison itself looks like something out of Stallone’s “Demolition Man,” rebuilt inside a giant warehouse, or more likely, soundstage. It’s impossible to take “Escape Plan” seriously beyond the glib excitement generated from Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s years-in-the-making collaboration.
Ultimately an effort that ranks above the machinelike, self-glorifying “Expendables” films but below Schwarzenegger’s wild, underrated “The Last Stand,” Hafstrom’s film seems likely to satisfy each of its stars’ fans. But for two guys who have both fought their way out of tougher, stupider, higher-concept ideas than this one, and looked better while doing it, “Escape Plan” suggests they may be trapped more by the past than any sort of tangible prison.