Thursday, 8 May 2014


So you missed some of last month's Oscar winners? You probably also missed last year's blockbuster action smash. And that is what airplane travel is designed to remedy. There are times while flying when it becomes prudent to find a movie whose plot will keep your attention without working with the low oxygen in the cabin air to further twist your brain. Recognisable stars, whose inability to play very far from their established personae, are a must, because you have to be able to flow with the character development despite missing crucial bits of dialogue because only one ear functions on your headset, or the first officer and head stewardess are hogging the microphone like neophytes doing their first stand up, or at least one person in front, behind, or beside you has their own attention span problem and moves you, bangs you, excuses himself past you, talks through you, at every possible moment. You'd like a villain who will ham it up and die with a wry ironic smile of self-deprecation. Maybe a comely woman or two, one of whom should be eye candy and another who should be one of a couple of cast members who really can act and be wasted in supporting roles which seem to have been written by a scripter on loan from Minecraft.

You are looking for something like Escape Plan.

It's a buddy picture, of course, and it seems written as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, as he gets all the good scenes that require minimal dialogue, although many with eloquent grunts. He plays a prison security expert who gets himself thrown into stir so he can figure out ways of breaking out. On behalf of the CIA, represented by comely Catriona Balfe, he gets himself rendered to a secret prison where he hooks up with Rottmeyer, supposedly an employee who holds the key to reaching a criminal mastermind. Rottmeyer is played by Arnold Schwartenegger who, with Stallone playing straight man, turns into a acting genius; Tom Hanks overdosed on Human Growth Hormone.

The new-found buddies team up to thwart evil prison warder Jim Caviezel, who somehow resists the urge to go full Alan Rickman on his role, and thus imbues it with an awkward gravitas which never gets resolved fully, because there is only one way anything ever gets resolved here. Caviezel's evil henchman is played by Vinnie Jones, the ex-soccer player best-known for squeezing Paul Gasgoigne's balls, whose presence in virtually any action movie is a more reliable signifier of schlock than Chuck Norris could ever dream of being. He's like what Jason Statham would be if Jason Statham couldn't act as brilliantly as he does.

The story moves smoothly enough, there's a small twist midway through and what must have seemed like a very clever twist closer to the end. But if the premise is Stallone's ability to plan and execute, he relies to an extraordinary degree on things he discovers by pure chance after his plan has broken down. And he is helped immensely by the deus-ex-machina Sam Neill, a doctor named Kyrie, which may or may not be metaphoric, disillusioned by his service to Cavaziel, who simply needs a few stiff drinks and a reminder of his Hippocratic oath to crucially help Stallone. And the best twist of all is that the Balfe babe turns out to be Arnold's daughter, not his girlfriend, a rare piece of generational Hollywood honesty.

It all erupts into automatic weapons, helicopter gunships, hordes of uniformed minions mowed down like extras in a Bond movie, flames, tidal know, the usual. And a final twist when Stallone's boss, Vincent D'Onofrio, turns out predictably to be not what he appears to be—he's too good an actor not to be a plot twist. The other wasted talent is Amy Ryan, though interestingly, like D'Onofrio, her intensity seems better suited to the smaller screen, or at least smaller movies, where her talent isn't subsumed by monosyllables and explosions.

It's directed competently by Mikael Hafstrom, who seems to specialise in horror, which when you look at it, is very close to what this movie is--two action figures trapped in the ultimate haunted house. I was impressed by the design; production designer Barry Chusid plays on the blueprints of the prisons Stallone is breaking down, but works in elements of sf, MC Escher-like, and even musical sets--I kept seeing Elvis doing 'Jailhouse Rock as I was distracted by my mini-bottles of wine. But even on the tiny seat-back screen, he keeps it interesting. 

I particularly liked the guards wearing expressionless plastic masks--by coincidence on the return flight I watched the opening 40 minutes or so of Cool Hand Luke. I'd write an extended comparison of the two films, but it would be useless: Luke makes you care about the people (even though I let my melatonin work and went to sleep; but then I've seen it 3-4 times already) while Escape Plan asks you to care only about the plan. Anyway, those masks are the 21st century equivalent of the mirrored shades worn by the chain-gang bosses in that film. But nothing is made of the masks, just as nothing was made of Stallone's rendition. Wider points are beyond the remit of Escape Plan.
So who cares if the headset is broken, the guy in front keeps changing the angle, and the captain can't make up his mind about wanting those seat belts buckled because of turbulence? Stallone just fell 100 feet down an industrial strength air vent, and wasn't hurt at all. What could happen to us?

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