THE BLU REVIEW: Escape Plan (2013)

Due for release on shiny disc in the UK next month, Cal checks out this criminally underrated vehicle for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

With action titans Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger finally teaming up to play major roles alongside one another in an action flick, many have decried that Escape Plan should’ve been produced twenty years ago. This, however, is pure bullshit – Escape Plan arrives at a time when we need it the most, with the two iconic screen legends delivering an exceptional beer and steak extravaganza in the midst of a dire cinematic era populated with superhero movies and CGI-laden blockbusters. Not just an old-school action film, Escape Plan is also a prison breakout adventure, another extraordinarily manly cinematic subgenre that we don’t see enough of in this day and age. More pertinently, Sly and Arnie still have what it takes to deliver the goods, and it helps that this is not just a fun time but a genuinely good motion picture as well. Smart and well-structured, it’s an incredibly enjoyable sit which belongs on the biggest possible screen, showing that you don’t need a $200 million budget and CGI aplenty to create an exciting slice of cinematic escapism.

A man with a specialist profession, Ray Breslin (Stallone) is a prison escape artist, making a living by breaking out of all the country’s best penitentiaries to find flaws in the system. Approached by the CIA, Ray is offered a rather difficult assignment: to enter and break out of a maximum security prison known as “The Tomb”, where the government sends prisoners in order for them to disappear. The Tomb’s location is top secret, hence Ray will have to go in without the assistance of his team. Violently abducted upon agreeing to the job, it fast becomes clear to Ray that not everything is right, with the sadistic Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) condemning him to a lifetime in the airtight prison. Before long, Ray befriends fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), and the pair begin scheming to stage a breakout. It’s a daunting task for Ray, whose job skills are pushed to their limits by the intricate construction.

Both Expendables movies so far are an enormous amount of fun, but they are action films first and foremost, with flimsy plotting and not much tension. While there’s nothing overly wrong with this approach, Escape Plan is more of a story-driven thriller with action elements, rendering it solid from a critical standpoint on top of being flat-out fun. To be sure, it’s not going to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and the killjoys in the crowd might be able to nit-pick various aspects of the plot, but Escape Plan definitely works, finding a smooth narrative rhythm and providing a degree of smarts to supplement all the fun. The effort is definitely appreciated, with the film’s first two acts mostly dedicated to sharp dialogue and intense set-pieces as Ray works to formulate an escape plan. On top of this, with a 110-minute runtime, director Mikael Håfström has time to establish Ray’s personality, giving us a reason to root for him once he’s inserted into The Tomb. As time goes on, deeper layers to Ray’s character are introduced, and we understand his motivation for selecting this obscure trade.

Although the violence here is not on the same extreme level as something like 2008’s RamboEscape Plan is an R-rated actioner, which is for the best. At no point does it feel as if Håfström is pulling any punches; bullet hits are bloody, and dialogue is peppered with profanity. Once the stakes are established and all the plot pieces are in place, the film really springs to life for a spectacular climax laced with bullets, blood, explosions, brawls and wisecracks. The climactic set-piece is fucking magnificent; the type of exhilarating action sequence that will make you stand up and cheer. Escape Plan thankfully understands the appeal of Sly and Arnie, allowing the legends to go nuts with firearms when the occasion calls for it. Added to this, Håfström knows precisely when to play it straight and when to plant his tongue in cheek. The only downside, though, is that some of the fight scenes are underwhelming, with the dreaded shaky-cam syndrome raising its ugly head to disappointing effect. Some of the CGI is a bit iffy as well, but it’s not a huge deal.

It’s always magnificent to witness Sly and Arnie sharing the frame in a motion picture, with both accepting meaty roles here which allow them to do more than just blow shit up. Stallone is very much the straight man as Breslin, and his performance is strong and focused, making him an interesting protagonist for whom you want to root for. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, lights up the movie with his playfulness, having a total ball chewing the scenery and dispersing one-liners. Escape Plan allows the Austrian Oak to deliver a handful of beautiful quips, and he also summons his trademark muscle to mow down bad guys once the finale arrives. Witnessing the hulking star holding a massive machine gun turret ripped from a helicopter… It provokes tears of joy. Thankfully, the movie also boasts a great supporting cast. As the sinister warden, Caviezel is perfectly fine, making for a good villain to actively root against. Vinnie Jones is present here as well, playing the trademark tough henchman role very nicely. Rounding out the main players is Sam Neill as The Tomb’s resident doctor, while Vincent D’Onofrio, 50 Cent and Amy Ryan all make a positive impression as Breslin’s support team.

Escape Plan confidently stands as one of 2013’s finest and most satisfying motion pictures, a slick slice of manly escapism that delivers great action, superb actors and an engaging narrative. It’s the very definition of crowd-pleasing entertainment, and it’s hard to imagine a better project for Arnie and Sly to have undertaken together. Fans of these two will die happy after this team-up; we can finally tick off something big from our bucket list.

The Blu-ray

If the UK release matches the US edition of Escape Plan from Summit Entertainment, then action fans this side of the pond should be pleased. The 1080p (2.39:1) video transfer might not wow HD-philes, but it is a fair translation of the film’s digital origins. There’s pleasing fine detail and the colour-graded shots are bold, such as that ever-popular steely-blue patina. It certainly offers more depth and a greater handling of contrast than the blown-out DVD release.

Even better is the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix which truly tests your surround sound set-up (would you want anything else in a movie like this?). This is a track so good it only helps to draw you further into the experience, building an atmosphere and ambience to the prison that visuals couldn’t provide. It’s also as OTT and boisterous as you’d expect when the bullets start to fly.

As for extras, you get an audio commentary with director Håfström and co-writer Miles Chapman, a making-of featurette, a documentary about real prisons, profiles of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, and deleted scenes. Not a bad package for a movie more or less ignored at the box office.

Escape Plan hits UK Blu-ray March 17. You can pre-order it for a measly £13 on Amazon.




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