October 20th, 2013 By JAY HORTON | Movies & Television | Posted In: Movie Reviews

Stallone, Schwarzenegger and The Twilight Of The Action Figure: Escape Plan Reviewed

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Escape Plan screened after WW press deadlines, but critic Jay Horton was there for the Stallone and the Schwarzenegger.

Critic's Grade: C+

A quarter century ago, when dinosaurs strode the earth, American cinema was dominated by an unlamented breed of leaden, clunky, ginormous vehicles constructed to flatter the specific charms and mask the woeful limitations of leaden, clunky, ginormous stars. Little more than denatured and lobotomized updates of the cheapo potboilers and procedurals that fueled second-run houses throughout the ‘70s, the prefab genre boiled away any lingering authorial flourish or sense of place—any hint of actual human involvement with the creative process—to manufacture a succession of workmanlike blockbusters singularly meant to position an everyman of extraordinary talents (featureless and barely humanoid) within dreadful circumstances leading toward violent retribution.

Plodding and blithely incoherent, they wed the meticulous pace of procedurals to the infernal logic of revenge fantasies for hours upon hours of purposelessly spinning wheels as the leads scowled falsely and mangled catchphrases with heavy tongues. The conventions of narrative were grudgingly honored with such naked contempt that the majority of footage crawled by as dutiful obeisance to misunderstood traditions. They were painfully slow, in the literal sense, as a porno that forced audiences to sit through an entire pizza delivery shift beforehand, and they were called, for some damn reason, action movies. Beleaguered critics would ask the heavens with benumbed astonishment whether such thoroughly soulless husks came to life by accident or design. To that, at least, we've an answer.

Escape Plan is the sort of film they don't make anymore. Every single element of filming, from choice of fonts to riff-dappled-score to blithe racism to an avoidance of women less misogynistic than monastic, has been curated to ass-end-of-the-‘80s specifications. Forget about the story, which is just the latest iteration of an evergreen crowd pleaser. The central conceit—peculiarly-hands-on prison security specialist Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) finds himself mysteriously shunted to next-gen privately-operated detention facility also housing a hulking greybeard of thick accent, tailored beard and former friend of interest to the powers-that-be—isn't especially ludicrous relative to the surprisingly voluminous micro-genre. Tonight and ever after there's gonna be a jailbreak, somewhere in the development schedule, and exploiting the audience's rooting interests in the charge toward freedom without ennobling convicts or highlighting flaws within the penal system necessarily leads Hollywood toward credulity-bending contrivances. (cf. 1989's Lock Up, in which Stallone busts out only to protect his wife from a murderous warden.)

There's no more or less suspension of disbelief demanded than the average popcorn flick, but the reliance on rightfully abandoned modes of storytelling proves torturous. Why suffer through ham-fisted elaboration of blatantly ridiculous circumstances when nobody involved cares one whit? Why continue to introduce characters given nothing whatsoever to do? Those inner lives begrudgingly sketched—a former star prosecutor, Breslin dedicated himself to vouchsafing maximum security facilities after an escapee slaughtered his family—aren't just incomplete but vividly wrong, as a scorpion asked about the bumblebee's reason for being. Say what you will about the emptiness at the heart of twenty-first century spectaculars, the kids have the courage of their convictions and long ago chose adrenalized incoherency above dutiful pantomime of unfelt tropes.

Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are in their comfort zone, to be sure. Even as the film plays out with all the verve and tension of a John Deere catalog, our heroes do their damnedest to distract. By dint of masculine code, the leads' interaction rarely veers beyond exposition, and they dearly relish those few opportunities. Sure, a smarter film would've allowed the audience to note the slight differences of posture and gait alongside, but identifying the tics and naming the offenders allows our stars just about their only room to stretch.

These sorts of films, these immobile actioners, feel so cramped after a while. Compared to the hyperkinetic restlessness of millennial shoot-‘em-ups, the effect's deadly enervating and somehow even less thoughtful than their attention-deficit-disordered counterparts. Why waste Vincent D'Onofrio's best Joe Don Baker for a few thankless scenes? Sam Neill's prison doctor has so little to do beyond empathetically mending our hero's wounds that one imagines he hovered around the set genuinely concerned for Stallone's welfare. Right or wrong, the trashmasters of modernity would've at least handed 50 Cent a gun or asked Amy Ryan to do more than intimate sexual scenarios midst bookended rejoinders with boss Stallone. Faced with impossibly underwritten characters—are they good cops? Are they bad cops?—Vinnie Jones and Jim Caviezel alternately over-emote and implode with a hollowness less menacing than bemused. Their comeuppance feels more a sorely needed excision, and, when interest pricks upward through truncated climax, it's not bloodlust but appreciation for momentum of any stripe. If, this modern world, there still exists a paradigm where a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, a man might want to hurry things up.

And yet. Midst final battle oddly rousing for all the boilerplate inevitabilities, when Schwarzenegger finally grabs hold of a machine gun, even the press row dissolved to momentary awe: a helpless release of breath less cheer than triumphant sigh, as if a chord beyond hearing had suddenly been resolved. Within the simplest possible staging—prototypical 'American' shot three-quarter-framing Arnie (cinematographic cheats born of budgetary shortcomings and fuzzy reception that survive as meat-and-potatoes aesthetic eternally dubious of craft)—the filmmakers inserted a close-up of his deadened gaze. ‘Twas an old trick, equal parts Man With No Name and Dick Tracy, and, in the instant, timeless.

We shan't miss these movies. Politics aside, there's defiance toward artistry at turns witless and pandering and wholly disingenuous. We shan't praise the Michael Bay legacy, but at least modern movies reflect someone having fun. Still, however daft and corrupt the old lions, they possess a largely-disappeared dimension of gravitas if for no other reason than that they took themselves so very seriously. Stallone and Schwarzenegger somehow became the most popular actors in the world, despite being completely unable to recite intelligible passages of dialogue and utterly unwilling to pretend they were anyone else, and they accomplished this through sheer sense of self. Stallone reportedly hammered out the screenplay for Rocky over a long weekend. Schwarzenegger, at the time, was thought lucky for falling into Terminator and Conan, but, as the years go by, we imagine the projects assembling themselves once orbiting his ego's singularity. 

After one final plot twist of such dizzying illogic, half-assed execution and absolute purposelessness that a different film would've played the moment for trenchant satire, Escape Plan circles back to the beginning: worldview unsullied, participants unchanged, sins (softness and greed, most notably) unforgiven. Once upon a time, the naysayers would complain the choreographed sustain advertised franchise potential, but what other outcome could arise from inviolate narrative blueprint and characters who sanctify certainty above all else? In its way, anything less than a sequel-ready denouement would bite the comforted expectations of…whomever this film hopes to attract, but the whiff of anachronism hangs heavy. They made their way through one last adventure without undue embarrassment. By rights, this should be the end, but the graceful exit from public lives seems unlikely.

Whatever meta-giggles can be wrung from next summer's third Expendables—a collection of the most humorless men to have ever existed sweating blood to pull together a nine-figure College Humor skit is in itself funny—it's no longer so clear if we're laughing with the stars. They're not laughing, anyways, but what other paths lay open? Supporting roles in quality projects simply wouldn't fit, in so many ways. Again, acting has never quite been their forte, and, outside of a filmic context built around 'roided fantasia, sculpted musculature appears a tad freakish midst senescence. They are, still, big, big men. It's our pleasures that got small.
 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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