There’s a time for intellectual stimulation and there’s a time for purely entertaining trash. “Escape Plan” is trash. It’s difficult to dismiss it outright since it functions as easy, unchallenging fun. Previews made it look like the second coming of the action-junkie Christ: where else can Rambo and Dutch work together to escape a modern-day Alcatraz? Unfortunately, all of the punch-throwing, one-liner-spewing, helicopter-jumping charisma in the world can’t fix a film made from a thin concept and with half-baked execution. This movie might revolve around the personality of its stars, but those stars are so consistently entertaining that their personality is a given, while their material is so weak that even they can’t carry it.
What makes a no-frills action movie like “Predator” or “Cliffhanger” different from a no-frills action movie like “Escape Plan?” They all work from high-concept premises, finding a situation-of-the-year for the protagonists to fight their way out of, and are so far removed from any sort of realism that at any moment you’d expect the cannon fodder to start bleeding green. Despite these similarities, “Escape Plan” doesn’t compare to the excellent films that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone churned out at the heights of their careers. Those two are not to blame. Both are great fun to watch, still exuding the macho magnetism that established their careers.
The problem here is one of style: slick, modern, and boring. This film has been sold as action-driven exploitation, but comes across more as a slow, cautious, average blockbuster. There’s not much style behind the substance, and shaky cameras, de-saturated color pallets, and quick cuts don’t count for style. These are modern techniques for modern sensibilities, not the cheesiness that “Escape Plan” should have reveled in. It feels unfamiliar–flat, cold, and lifeless. It also seems a bit cynical, forgoing the cheerful bloodshed of films like “Conan the Barbarian” in favor of a grim-faced solemnity that feels wildly out-of-place in a movie about muscular guys killing less muscular guys. “The Expendables” has similar problems with style, but at least it can crack a smile while pumping baddies full of lead.
Still, all of the films that these two stars have made over the last few years have suffered from one overbearing flaw: they are all supposed to be comeback films for stars who don’t need them. Audiences still love these actors, so why should every film have to be the one that rejuvenates their still-lucrative careers? Why not just accept that they can carry films that are based off of good material? Instead of trying to imitate or modernize the films that made Schwarzenegger and Stallone famous, anyone who has the good fortune of getting to direct a movie starring these people should go about it with the same degree of sincerity that older directors did. They should aim to make a good movie that just happens to have these names on its posters instead of an otherwise weak star vehicle.
“Escape Plan” doesn’t try to be good in its own right. It tries to ape the good movies that its leads used to regularly star in. The intention of bringing older-style action back to the big screen is admirable, but flawed. Action isn’t dead, but our culture has forgotten what quality trash is. We have to forget our standards for modern action and remember what made those older films so good: they were made with heart, not from a formula. They weren’t necessarily ambitious, but they weren’t afraid to try new things and break their own rules. Even when they weren’t innovative, they were at least made with a certain level of quality. Sure, Schwarzenegger and Stallone are great, but having those two on board doesn’t mean anything if they don’t have a good crew behind them. We would be better off looking to revive the careers of directors like John Carpenter or John McTiernan than of capable action stars.