**/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B
starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Amy Ryan
screenplay by Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko
directed by Mikael Håfström
by Bryant Frazer Escape Plan, a breezy prison-break yarn with a sci-fi gloss and cursory nods to post-9/11 geopolitics, would scarcely merit a footnote in the career histories of everyone involved if not for its rare alignment of celestial bodies: Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in leading roles, playing gently against type in a wry bromance that adds just enough spirit to freshen up the overly familiar action proceedings. Sly is Ray Breslin, a security consultant who specializes in breaking out of penal facilities in order to demonstrate their flaws to the people operating them--mostly, it seems, federal maximum-security prisons. When the CIA asks for Ray's help stress-testing an entirely new kind of facility designed to incarcerate Very Bad Men (they're referred to as "the worst of the worst" and terrorists is the implication), it's not clear whether it's the sizable cash payday or the implied challenge of the assignment that he finds most tempting. Either way, he's in. Trouble is, the offer wasn't on the level. We learn that his client intends to prove the prison is escape-proof by keeping Breslin entombed within its walls, ignoring his safe words, smashing his GPS tracker, and using his own how-to-build-a-prison rulebook against him. Just when all seems lost, the conversational advances of fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) suggest the beginning of a beautiful friendship--and maybe a way for Breslin to bust both of them out of the big house.
The scenario is nothing special, but it's serviceable, and a mid-budget thriller made for an international audience is a rarity these days. It even attracted a strong cast, though not everyone in the ensemble has much to do. Jim Caviezel plays the requisite sadistic prison warden, Vinnie Jones his aggressive but cowed strongman, and Sam Neill the doctor on call; Amy Ryan, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson--playing Breslin's girlfriend, business manager, and computer guru, respectively--are left back at the office, which seems a waste of talent. Of course, none of them are the star attraction. It's too bad that Stallone is so unconvincing here; despite having spent the bulk of his career trying to establish a suave star image separate from his early, barely verbal triumphs as Rocky and Rambo, he still struggles to register as an author and subject-matter expert with a penchant for high-level puzzle-solving. If his performance is one-note, it improves in the scenes he plays as straight man to Schwarzenegger, who comes across simultaneously as the biggest dork on the international crime scene and the smartest guy in the room. Schwarzenegger has only gotten more playful with age, trading in sunglasses and sneer for squint and side-eye and a carefully-cultivated circle of salt-and-pepper facial hair that signals he's entered his elder action statesman phase. (End credits note: "Look for Mr. Schwarzenegger created by Giuseppe Franco.") In their scenes together, he simultaneously indulges and flatters Stallone's man-of-few-words routine, insinuating himself in Sly's orbit. He's almost inappropriately friendly, like a beefcake version of Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train. If it's not a great part, it's at least an interesting one for Arnold because the dialogue doesn't cater to him. In fact, it requires that he underplay his role for a change, with novel results.
Unfortunately, those hints of personality are few and far between, as director Mikael Håfström's style is TV-basic, indifferently stringing together endless close-ups and shot/reverse-shot sequences in scenes that have been further sliced and diced into tiny components. The camera rarely stays in one place for more than three seconds at a time before the picture zips forward, cut after highly caffeinated cut. It's aggressive yet artless and anonymous; this film's idea of an auteurist flourish comes when Schwarzenegger grabs a machine gun off a waiting helicopter and the picture goes into slow-motion as he turns and opens fire with a new wildness in his eyes. It's hard to tell whether the screenplay (by Miles Chapman, with pseudonymous contributions from Jason Keller as Arnell Jesko) originally moved so blandly through its paces. Certainly the script as filmed doesn't offer much in the way of surprises other than curiously off-brand one-liners. The movie's best stab at a catchphrase is the uninspired "Have a lovely day, asshole," but its single most memorable line is an odd non sequitur: Stallone slugs Schwarzenegger across the jaw and Arnold, gaping at him in astonishment and delight, exclaims, "You hit like a vegetarian!"
There is something provocative about setting a 2013 film inside an extra-legal, privately-operated prison where inmates forced to wear outfits bearing corporate logos are savagely beaten and water-tortured by guards in creepy black Guy Fawkes masks to protect their anonymity within what's otherwise an unforgiving panopticon. It borders on criticism, and you can't accuse Håfström of soft-pedalling the message. The prison warden's fixation on a collection of butterflies under glass is too obvious a metaphor even before Håfström insists on panning the camera at the end of a scene to create a match cut from a pinned insect to a convict behind plexi. Later, Sam Neill's doctor has a crisis of conscience as he turns to a page in a book and reads a clearly labelled summary of the Hippocratic Oath. Too esoteric, so Håfström cuts to a close-up showing us that the book is titled, no kidding, Medical Ethics. (Composer Alex Heffes dutifully adds a sting to the soundtrack.) The film's condescending redemption arc for devout Muslim prisoner--and not-terrorist--Faran Tahir is a bend-over-backward goodwill gesture that smacks of tokenism. Speaking of which, as far as I can remember, Tahir and 50 Cent are, quite literally, the only non-Caucasian characters--quite an oversight for a movie that has anything at all to say about incarceration.
Even if you give Escape Plan credit for a pro forma political conscience, that's not what's really on its mind. As soon as its lead parts were cast, the whole project was doomed to become an exercise in nostalgia--an opportunity for aging Gen-Xers to check in one more time on the closest thing we had to matinee idols in our youth. It's a little frustrating to spend most of Escape Plan's running time with these two confined to the closed quarters of a depressingly slate-grey jailhouse, where any opportunities for free-range outrageousness are kept neatly in check. (The craziest it gets inside the prison is the scene with Schwarzenegger in solitary confinement, where he reverts to ranting in his native German.) But the milieu finally opens up in the third act, which includes some rousing 1980s-style action with much gunfire, a chopper circling overhead, and a race against the clock. For old-school action fans, the sight of Arnie's automatic weapon spraying bullets that rip through flesh and send dark spatters of blood tracing patterns through the air like grim fireworks may still quicken the pulse, and Escape Plan at least has that to offer.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Escape Plan more or less tanked at the U.S. box office, but it was an outsized performer overseas, making enough to bankroll a sequel that hits video-on-demand later this month. That's surely the impetus for Lionsgate's port of its original Blu-ray release to a new UHD version. (A BD disc and digital download code are additionally enclosed in the package.) The film was shot with the Arri Alexa camera system, with resolution that exceeds HD but doesn't quite reach 4K, so a UHD version of Escape Plan was never going to be the sharpest disc on the shelf. The 2.39:1, 2160p transfer does looks quite crisp, save for a few VFX shots near the end of the film with elements that appear overly soft and/or artificially sharp. (Usual practice in Hollywood is to render VFX at no more than 2K resolution, even when the feature is destined to play in 4K.) This is not an especially high-contrast picture and the colour scheme is mostly undemanding greys and blues; as drab as they are, they feel a little more lively in HDR10 (my UHD BD player lacks the Dolby Vision option), and the occasional splashes of colour are appropriately rich. Bright highlights, often provided by what look like LED light fixtures incorporated into the sets, are piercing but not distracting in HDR, and the white-hot heat lamps that are used to wear down prisoners in solitary confinement blaze on screen at brightness levels that get the point across without becoming oppressive. (I'm watching on an OLED display; it's possible they would really light up your viewing room on an overall brighter LED.) Skin tones are inconsistent, leaning towards pink and magenta most of the time but occasionally skewing more orange, which I assume is by design given the overall dull and monochromatic look of the prison environment. And noise is more or less non-existent, embracing the Alexa's clean digital aesthetic even in darker scenes.
The Dolby Atmos audio is solid if not especially impressive for most of the film's running time. (I don't have Atmos, so I missed out on any directionality in the height channels.) During scenes set inside the prison facility, frequent heavy rumbles and omnipresent atmospherics ably generate a you-are-there soundscape, and Alex Heffes's score spreads itself out and makes itself as comfy as you'd expect. It's worth noting that the mix really roars to life during the climactic action sequence, where hard bass hits underscore sharp cracks of gunfire and the whir of helicopter rotors rip around the room at a fearsome volume. That bit is quite satisfying, more so since the mix doesn't get busy enough to wear out its welcome and induce fatigue earlier on.
Extras appear on the UHD BD as well as the companion Blu-ray, though there's nothing new that didn't appear on Escape Plan's original BD release. We get an audio commentary from director Håfström and co-screenwriter Chapman, who spend a lot of time congratulating each other on their work and even more time discussing what's happening on screen. There is some interesting info here, as when Håfström admits that Stallone occasionally took a director's interest in the picture and suggested switching certain scenes around in the editing room. A generic making-of called "Executing the Plan" (22 mins., HD) features talking-head encounters with Håfström, Chapman, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and others. Producer Mark Canton touts the film as "Heat meets The Rock," getting the point across by flattering Michael Bay and slandering Michael Mann. And the film's location manager, Elston Howard, describes the primary location inside a 260-foot high facility at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans designed for the manufacture of rocket-booster panels. "I think it may be one of the largest buildings in the United States," comments Stallone, whose remarks were apparently fact-checked by people who've never seen a skyscraper. Along the same lines is "Clash of the Titans" (16 mins., HD), in which Schwarzenegger and Stallone describe their careers as a "fierce competition" between peers. While Stallone compares their rivalry to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, there's not a lot to chew on here. A little more interesting is "Maximum Security: The Real Life Tomb," which interviews a broad-ranging array of experts including academics, architects, a former warden, and a former prison guard on real-world antecedents for Escape Plan's prison and the feasibility of Stallone's various escape routes. It's a necessarily superficial but still informative crash course in prison design from a cast of fairly colourful characters. Finally, Lionsgate presents 11 short snippets cut from the film in a HiDef deleted scenes section. They offer some more material with Ryan, D'Onofrio, and Jackson as well as a few elided lines of dialogue, such as extra German-language shouting from Schwarzenegger.