It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a blue moon Sylvester Stallone reminds you that – within his limited range – he’s actually a pretty decent actor.
We’ve grown accustomed to seeing the aging superstar headline brain-dead actioners, most recently – and lucratively – teaming up with a bevy of Botox-enhanced co-stars in the (truly awful) Expendables movies. At their best, some of these brawnfests are dumb fun. At their worst, you limp out of the theater with a pounding headache and regret over losing two valuable hours of your life.
In those movies, Stallone usually plays a monosyllabic grunt. Granted, he’s perfectly capable of imbuing these roles with disarming charm, but it’s not as if he’s reciting Shakespeare. (Sorry for inserting that image in your heads, readers.) In the twisty prison caper Escape Plan, Sly’s saddled with playing a smart man with a gift for breaking out of maximum-security penitentiaries, a far cry from his previous prison-themed film, Lock Up (1989). And he pulls it off … with the help of fellow 80s action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their easygoing chemistry surpasses everything else in the tepid but watchable thriller that surrounds them.
Both stars receive top billing in Escape Plan, but the former Governator, who doesn’t even appear until at least a half hour into the film, is essentially playing a sidekick, albeit one with crack comic timing, something the film could have mined more fully. Stallone’s Ray Breslin is a methodical escape artist, a “resident Houdini,” according to Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio), his boss at the independent security company for which he wins the big bucks. The extended opening sequence shows Breslin in his element, outsmarting the staff at a Colorado prison. The film’s Swedish director, Mikael Håfström (1408, The Rite) is in no hurry to explore Breslin’s M.O., which is a boon in the early going but proves to be a liability later on.
Fresh from another “gotcha” gig, Breslin agrees to be roped into what sounds like a challenge for the seasoned pro. CIA attorney Jessica Miller (Now You See Me‘s Caitriona Balfe) lays it all out for him: off-the-grid facility housing international baddies their governments wants vanished off the face of the Earth. “When do I start?” asks Breslin. “You just did,” Miller replies, much to the consternation of peanut gallery Abigail (Amy Ryan) and Hush (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson), who clearly smell a rat.
A whiz like Breslin ought to have intuited the proposal was bad news from the get-go, but Håfström is keen on getting on with the show. Breslin is ambushed on a New Orleans street, sedated, and flown to the high-tech prison where the bulk of Escape Plan unfolds. In the scene where Breslin realizes his predicament, Håfström pulls back to reveal what looks like an airport hangar with glass cages. The CGI-heightened shot, one of several that shows the director showing off his digital bells and whistles, is meant to convey the daunting challenge Breslin faces, but all it could elicit from this reviewer was one big shrug. The same goes for the movie’s villain, handsome, calculating prison warden Hobbes (a sorely flavorless Jim Caviezel), who’s fond of inflicting punishment by snapping his fingers at his black mask-wearing lackeys and using a white handkerchief to keep his precious fingers germ-free. What must have seemed like a juicy part on the page fails to leave much of an impression onscreen, despite Hobbes’ sharp executive wear.
One winces at how much fun Schwarzenegger would have had in Caviezel’s role, but he makes the most of stealing as many scenes as possible playing Emil Rottmayer, the German-speaking inmate who takes an eyebrow-raising interest in the new arrival. Their tentative camaraderie makes for some amusing moment that briefly enliven the otherwise dour mood Håfström establishes. Not even Sam Neill in the thankless role of the prison’s doctor can prevent viewers from feeling like you’re twiddling your thumbs as Breslin figures out how to solve this complex puzzle.
Stallone and Schwarzenegger are both coming off box office flops (Bullet to the Head and The Last Stand, respectively), which suggests moviegoing audiences are fed up with the AARP-action-hero shtick outside The Execrables‘ ensemble sitcom-level banter. The irony is that they’re largely blameless for Escape Plan‘s shortcomings. Their charisma goes a long way towards making this prison-breakout yarn palatable, but with one thrilling exception, you’re going to be a couple of steps ahead of Håfström as he pokily unveils a series of unsurprising surprises. Predictable cheap thrills like these might pass muster if you’re flipping the channels on cable late at night, but or a night out at the movies, one expects a lot more than a mechanical contraption suffering from a terminal case of Papillon envy.
I’ll take Sly and Ahnuld behind bars, however, over Danny Trejo slicing and dicing his way through Machete Kills. Robert Rodriguez’s sequel to the proudly schlocky, issue-driven splatterfest that began as a fake trailer in Grindhouse seems at first like it’s going to preserve its predecessor’s low-rent charm, but it badly loses its way long before its protracted, can-we-end-this-movie-already finale.
Machete (Trejo) is enlisted by the U.S. President (Charlie Sheen, cleverly credited by his real name, Carlos Estevez) to take out Mendez (Demián Bichir), a Mexican guerrilla leader hellbent on inflicting a nuclear apocalypse north of the border. Machete infiltrates Mendez’s compund … only to discover he’s turned into a Jekyll-and-Hyde despot. Like everything else in this overblown production, the bipolar sociopath overstays his welcome early on. It also wastes Mel Gibson, who seems to be having blast as a nuclear engineer with an interstellar ploy for world domination … and even gets to sneak in a Mad Max reference during a chase sequence.
We get it, Mr. Mariachi, restraint has no place in here, but when your cheerfully subversive brand of excess has the unintended consequence of wearing out your audience, you know you have a problem that not even cameos by Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lady Gaga can resolve. (Kudos to former Spy Kid Alexa Vega, who plays a gun-toting prostitute with gusto and shows she’s matured into a badass screen siren fully deserving of her own action showcase.) Let’s give props to Rodriguez’s penchant for high-body-count thrills, especially when they involve bumping off a game cast of Hollywood talent in all sorts of gruesome ways. But the quality that elevated Machete above the typical B-minus fodder it simultaneously apes and sends up was an ability to tackle the immigration debate with tongue firmly placed in cheek. It’s clear Rodriguez wants to continue that conversation in Machete Kills, but he’s too busy drowning out the subject in a seemingly interminable barrage of trigger-happy mayhem.
Machete Kills continues its chaotic Tex-Mex onslaught in wide release. Escape Plan begins trapping audiences with prison-break clichés Oct. 18.