“Escape Plan” doesn’t aim high, but it delivers, providing the brute force entertainment values we expect from B movies. It reunites “Expendables” co-stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, this time in full-on leading roles. It would have been nice if this musclehead matchup had come 30 years earlier, with both stars at the peak of their powers, but better late than never.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a security expert who tests prisons by entering incognito as an inmate and breaking out. The CIA hires him to infiltrate a top-secret, inescapable pen holding the world’s worst miscreants. But when he arrives he finds that he’s been double-crossed and locked away for good. Will his suspiciously amiable fellow prisoner Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) aid Breslin’s getaway plot, or use it for his own purposes?
The nostalgic kick of seeing these Jurassic action stars back in the game hasn’t worn off yet. Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom churns out enough womp-crash-thud fight scenes to keep the momentum and adrenaline flowing. The two titans go toe-to-toe, swapping one-liners along with uppercuts (Schwarzenegger fares better here, telling his co-star, “You hit like a vegetarian”). The film updates the geopolitics of the pair’s Reagan-era adventures, with left jabs at extraordinary rendition, waterboarding and Gitmo-like detention facilities. In the most surprising twist, the leader of the prison’s Arab Muslim inmates becomes a crucial accomplice.
The film’s against-the-grain twists tickle up some smiles. Stallone’s escape artist is a regular Da Vinci. He knows the heat-expansion properties of aluminum vs. steel, can build a sextant out of junk-drawer scraps, and daubs his cell wells with caveman paintings to pass the time. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, of all people, plays his cerebral computer whiz colleague. Schwarzenegger finally gets to cut loose in German, spewing a long, ranting monologue that drowns the sound system in umlauts.
Amid the chattering machine guns, high-tailing helicopters and orange fireballs, a well-stocked supporting cast lends the enterprise some class. Vincent D’Onofrio plays Breslin’s business partner, a compulsive hand-washer who must buy his Purell by the drum. Jim Caviezel plays the super-prison’s softspoken, sadistic warden, whose butterfly collection suggests he’s a big fan of “Papillon.” Sam Neill brings scowling intelligence to the small role of the prison doctor, and Cockney head-banger Vinnie Jones goes full rage-aholic as the security staff’s chief brute.
“Escape Plan” is as functional as a plastic fork and about as memorable. “The Last Stand,” Schwarzenegger’s criminally underappreciated post-politics comeback movie, is infinitely more entertaining. All the same, this macho museum piece should help action fans taper down from the summer glut and hibernate through the awards season snoozers of fall.