It's tricky to talk about a movie like Escape Plan without sounding overly cynical or apathetic, but watching geriatric action icons Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger team up in Mikael Håfström's functional yet forgettable flick, it's also impossible not to feel like the movie is more a product of necessity than an inspired collaboration. So while the punches thrown in Escape Plan all land with an appropriate thud and the final explosion creates the requisite screen-filling fireball, there's a creeping sense of too-little-too-late that betrays the slavishly retro sensibilities on display.
B&C Security founder Ray Breslin (Stallone) wrote the book on structural security. His encyclopedic knowledge of the subject has transformed the prison industry, and he's been known to allow himself to be incarcerated just to test his theories. Along with his business partner Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio), trusted associate Abigail Ross (Amy Ryan), and resourceful technology expert Hush (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), Breslin makes a good living designing the world's toughest prisons. When his team are approached by a CIA lawyer (Caitriona Balfe) with a proposal to test an off-the-grid penitentiary, the challenge (and the sizable paycheck) is impossible to resist. From the moment Breslin is picked up by a team of murderous private contractors, however, it's obvious something has gone horribly wrong. Later, when Breslin regains consciousness in the Tomb -- a tightly fortified prison based on his own design -- it quickly becomes apparent he's been set up. Warden Hobbes (James Caviezel) runs the Tomb with ruthless efficiency, and his team of masked guards are quick to make an example of unruly inmates. At first it looks as if Breslin has finally been beaten at his own game, but then he meets Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), a convict who's equally tough and equally determined to regain his freedom. If Breslin and Rottmayer can just survive long enough to formulate a plan, they've got a fighting chance. But should they fail, they will both perish in a hell that was constructed as a place where people disappear forever.
Both in concept and execution, Escape Plan feels like it could have been made at the height of its respective stars' careers. For that reason it's hard to fault Håfström and screenwriting duo Arnell Jesko and Miles Chapman for sticking to a certain formula, though by the same token that means that, aside from seeing Stallone and Schwarzenegger share the screen for a good portion of the film, there's precious little that's original or exciting about Escape Plan. Try as Jesko and Chapman might to make the Tomb seem inescapable, there's never any doubt that Breslin and Rottmayer will succeed in their mission. And while the black masks donned by the guards give the proceedings an eerie edge, in the end they're really little more than private-military thugs. Meanwhile, a convoluted subplot about a mysterious figure known as Victor Mannheim who has the power to destroy the global financial market does little to raise the stakes.
That said, if you're buying a ticket to Escape Plan to see Stallone and Schwarzenegger trade quips (and perhaps a few blows), chances are you'll leave the theater with a smile on your face. Despite sporting a few more wrinkles, these two action icons still have the charisma that made them stars in the first place, and with the exception of Sam Neill (whose conflicted doctor feels slightly undeveloped), the supporting players all relish the chance to chew some scenery. So if, while watching Escape Plan, you start to feel like the film is merely a less outrageous riff on the high-tech prison escape featured in John Woo's Face/Off (1997), just squint your eyes, imagine those wrinkles have disappeared, and pretend it's 1990 -- perhaps the last year this team-up would have meant something more than a major payday for two of the biggest names in action cinema.