(Every week, in the Retro Rental, James Rocchi recommends a film on disc, download or streaming inspired by what’s being released that week, goings-on in the world, or, really, anything …)
It’s easy to imagine the appeal Escape Plan offers the Gen-X audience; as has been noted, elsewhere, it’s kind of hilarious that this is the first Stallone-Schwarzenegger collaboration outside of the Expendables films, and anyone who lived within line-of-sight of a movie theater screen or television during the ’80s will understand how this is a large deal. So, it’s not only expected but in many ways encouraged that Escape Plan is really just a chance to watch these two giants, even a little bit wearied by time, work together. It’s a nice enough star vehicle, especially if you squint and tell yourself it’s 1986. But it also means that as escape films go, it’s a bit of a washout.
Still, the pitch of Escape Plan — where a private-security expert (Stallone) is incarcerated in a hyper-jail he designed, requiring that he team up with a long-serving inmate (Schwarzenegger) to get out — still reminds us of why we love jailbreak movies: There’s a clear and binary objective that’ll require teamwork between unlikely team mates, with the apparatus of the state, however just or unjust, hovering over all promising doom over anyone who would try and thwart it. And so, if you don’t want to watch Stallone and Schwarzenegger break out of jail and pretend they don’t know how old they actually are, might I recommend one of the best prison break films of recent years — indeed, I’d say one of the best prison films ever made — 2008’s The Escapist.
The tremendous bad joke that came to make this film miserably unseen is that it, too, had a hard time getting out of movie jail here in the States; it had a Sundance screening, a home video release exclusive to a company that then went under and so on and so forth. But The Escapist deserved far better than that fate. It’s directed by Rupert Wyatt, who would then go on to make Rise of the Planet of the Apes (which also, not coincidentally, spends a lot of time being a prison movie, really), and co-written by Wyatt and Daniel Hardy. It starts as hard-bitten lifer Frank (Brian Cox, superb here as ever) finds out his daughter is ill, possibly dying .. and determines to get out to see her. Frank recruits a motley crew of helpers and fellow would-be escapees, including Joseph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Liam Cunningham and Seu Jorge) and then has to come up with a plan that not only escapes the notice of the authorities but also escapes the ire of the inmate-king of the prison, Damian Lewis …
All prison escape films are, essentially, puzzle films — moving resources and people and subterfuge around until the difficult route from the inside to the outside is opened. Not only does The Escapist know that, it also wraps tricks around tricks until the whole thing becomes a treat. It’s one thing to suggest that The Escapist offers an engaging, enthralling post-modern riff on the breakout thriller, it also works, wholly and entirely, as a breakout thriller; often when filmmakers ‘improve’ a take on a sub-genre, they re-invent the wheel so much it doesn’t roll, but Wyatt and his actors manage to reach to accomplish something very different while keeping both feet firmly planted on the cold cinderblock foundations of every prison-escape thriller.
Even better, the cast isn’t just great, they’re given characters to play, with real feelings and stakes that matter. Cox manages to be both swaggering and terrified, a salesman with nothing to actually sell; whether Frank’s threatening/promising with a growl in his voice or silently reading a letter bearing bad news while Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan” plays low on the soundtrack, he makes the best of each moment. His team all give good performances, and Lewis is a special standout as a the regal, raging king of the prisoners, powerless in his empire. Not to knock any Stallone/Schwarzenegger fans out there, but in a weird way, part of the appeal of Escape Plan is that really, you know how it’s going to end; in some ways, you’re kinda paying for that certitude. But The Escapist, bereft of stars and full of actual surprises, doesn’t work like that; even in its last shot, Wyatt gives you more than enough to wonder about and think on. Movies like Escape Plan are, all too often, caged in by the demands of big stars and big money, which are often as cold and restrictive as wrought iron bars; The Escapist offers something far better, an — ahem — escape plan captured on film where you have no idea where you’re going to wind up.
(The Escapist is streaming at Netflix.com)