I don’t know how many people were asking for a resurgence of 80s-style big-guys-with-big-guns action picture, but we sure got one. Arnold is out of politics and back into B-grade movies. Sly Stallone has been showing off his biceps on multiplex screens quite frequently. "The Expendables" is starting to look, in retrospect, like a genre landmark, particularly under the lens of "Escape Plan," which stars the two aforementioned musclemen.
Stallone features as Ray Breslin, an escape artist who breaks out of prisons so that wardens may identify the weaknesses inherent in their system. He gets more than he bargained for when he’s sent on his latest job: Infiltrating a privately owned off-shore prison designed to hold off-the-grid political prisoners. (The film skirts close to the idea of engaging with the privately owned prison complex in the U.S., but manages to deftly avoid the topic.)
His support team -- 50 Cent and Amy Ryan -- do what they can to track him, but this latest prison is out of a Sci-fi movie: Guards wear anonymous black masks, the cells are made of glass and stacked vertically. Sly gets lucky by running into Schwarzenegger’s mysteriously melancholic character, who immediately goes to work helping him devise his escape route. Sly get unlucky when he meets Jim Caveizel’s warden/profiteer character, a ruthless, impeccably dressed creature with no inner or outer life beyond torturing these men.
The picture makes gestures to trope-subversion and social awareness, but it’s filler, not commentary. One of the ever-angry devout Muslim inmates agrees to corrupt his prayers one night on behalf of Sly and Arnold, instead using his allotted time to scout for the escape mission, and then becomes a trusted partner. 50 Cent’s character is another example: He’s a thug here, yes, but a "techno-thug." It’s near wearying the way the picture barely side-steps stereotypes. And it doesn’t even give them anything interesting to fight against; Caveizel is given no backstory, no political alignment, nothing more than a feminine attitude.
Mikael Hafstrom’s direction has no interest in politic subtexts, or political texts, for that matter. No, he’s having his fun directing the movie as if it were the late 70s or early 80s, perhaps to appease his stars’ attempts to Dorian Gray themselves. It’s an approach that does have benefits: There’s no shaky-cam here, and a legitimate minimum of computer-generated explosions.
The fights here are done in close quarters, with well-placed compositions that catch every juke and jab. But there are also old-school "wipe" scene transitions (think "Star Wars,") long stretches of flat face-to-face photography, and a handful of laugh-out-loud-that’s-bad camera tricks. Hafstrom’s best moment, also, spurns special effects for an antique: He spends much of a climactic shootout focused on Schwarzenegger’s eyes, Sergio Leone-style. If it weren’t for the high-tech angles in the plot, you’d think the filmmakers were trying to get us into a time machine.
The movie they’ve made feels like the direct opposite of what’s often posited as "modern" action cinema -- that referring to the morally murky waters of pictures like "Bourne" and "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Miami Vice." No, this is a throwback to the days when movies were released on videocassette. It wants to tell us that we can all get along if we just fight against some prissy private contractor. It sidesteps interesting political and racial conflicts to give us people calling each other "asshole." It’s a very competently made vehicle for two stars trying desperately to avoid irrelevancy, and absolutely nothing more.
And when Sly and Arnold they can’t convince us that they’re still at their best, when the pills the movie asks us to swallow are just too much, they make jokes about how "you don’t look that smart," and about how their best days are long behind them. It’s actually getting hard to tell when they’re playing up the old shtick and when they’re trying to be sincerely macho. These guys escaped growing up.