At the respective heights of their careers, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone may have emblemized the macho killing machines of the Cold War era, but they were polar opposites in terms of type. Schwarzenegger was the cold, methodical, Teutonic automaton — at his best as a killer robot from the future in the Terminator films. Stallone, however, was the fuck-up who turned things around — the broken vet who reversed the defeat of Vietnam in Rambo, the dim palooka who did good in the Rocky movies. (Occasionally, they’d try to get Schwarzenegger to play the messed-up one, but with that Austrian diction of his, it never quite worked.) So it initially comes as a bit of a surprise that their roles are somewhat reversed in Escape Plan: Sly is the old, calculating pro, while Arnold is the guy who seems to have been stuck in prison for years.
The prison, though, is a real doozy. It was, for starters, inspired by the very teachings of structural security specialist Ray Breslin (Sly), an expert at breaking out from behind bars; he uses his considerable skills to bust out from federal penitentiaries and thus pinpoint the institutions’ weak spots. Then one day he’s approached by the CIA to go into a high-tech super-prison where they keep the really bad guys — the international terrorists and criminals that other governments don’t want, or want disappeared — and “test its security.” But once he gets there, he discovers that the warden (played by Jesus himself, Jim Caviezel) is a psycho who likes to collect butterflies and torture prisoners, that the head of security is a deranged Brit (played by the never not scarily intense Vinnie Jones), and that someone really, really wants to keep him there. Also, nobody even knows where on Earth this prison actually is — a problem for Breslin, whose schemes usually involve help from outside. Luckily, he’s got fellow inmate Rottmayer (Ah-nuld) to keep him company and to assist him in breaking out. Rottmayer is the one who knows the ropes, how the prison operates; he’s the one who takes the beatings and the waterboardings so that he can secretly grab a small metal disc off the floor or whatever, so that Breslin can go create some MacGyver-like contraption.
After some shticky “I’ll be back” cameos in the Expendables movies and a foray into “I’m too old for this crap” Eastwoodery in The Last Stand earlier this year, Schwarzenegger is working with somewhat more familiar material here, and he’s funny, charming, and confident in equal measure. The Last Stand was a decent movie, but here Arnold finally feels like the old Arnold again — even if he is, as noted, playing slightly against type. Stallone is a bit harder to buy at first as a cool-headed, brilliant escape artist, but we’re still with him, especially when he winds up butting heads with Caviezel’s flamboyant, dandyish villain. This is, honestly, the most likable these two action heroes have been in years.
Escape Plan isn’t a very serious movie, but it takes itself just seriously enough for what happens onscreen to feel like it has some consequence. One of the problems with the Expendables movies is that they all seem like one big joke, more parody than essence. But here, we get the sense that the movie wants us to care: Will Breslin and Rottmayer get out? Will they double-cross each other? Will one of them have to die in order for them to pull it off? Sometimes, the film tests our patience for its story: It’s full or elaborate descriptions and animated diagrams of Breslin’s strategies for breaking out, and director Mikael Hafstrom (who made the underrated Evil and the overrated 1408) probably eats up too much screen time trying to explain such things — as if there were anything believable or genuinely brilliant about our hero's ludicrous escape routes.
There are also some thoroughly undeveloped subplots involving Breslin’s team of experts, played by Amy Ryan and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. (We’ve been trained by Hollywood to take every bit of banter as indicative of later developments; so when we’re told early on, and repeatedly, that 50 Cent’s character is an ex-con who is dying to go back into prison to help his boss, we might become convinced that 50 Cent will infiltrate the prison by joining Al Qaeda or something in the second half of the movie. No such luck. Maybe those scenes are on a cutting-room floor somewhere.) Such unnecessary bits do result in some tedium, but who cares? Here are two action stars having fun; watching them work together as a team is a lot more entertaining than you might have expected. Try not to think too hard about it, and Escape Plan is stupid, stupid fun.