[18 October 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“What kind of man would choose to spend his whole life in prison?” This is the question asked and never quite answered by Escape Plan, which offers up Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) as that man. He’s got reasons, seemingly having to do with his history as a prosecutor and also with a family lost to a terrible criminal act, but that backstory is left mercifully spare. Whatever “kind of man” Ray might be, he wears his essential resentment pretty plainly.
This resentment leads to revenge, of course. Ray tends to take aim at institutions—though individual representatives of same are usually the easiest and most satisfyingly pummeled, humiliated or extravagantly bloodied targets. Just so, Ray first appears in a prison on Colorado, introduced by one of those familiar shots peering up at razor wire coiled atop a looming wall. Inside, Ray contemplates more walls, as well as guards and their cigarette packs, security codes and monitors, skylights and burly fellow inmates. Within minutes, Ray’s out of prison, aided by his team—the amiably cynical case manager/best friend Abigail (Amy Ryan) and the loyal-to-the-death tech/former prisoner Hush (50 Cent)—and instructing the flummoxed warden as to his institutional failures and the money he might now pay to correct them.
Ray’s helped in this last by his bottom-line-loving business partner, Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio). The relationship—so oddly imbalanced and so unconvincing—suggests a couple of things about the “kind of man” Ray may be, namely that he prefers not to be bothered with chasing gigs and also that, despite his reputation as a genius when it comes to breaking out of prisons, he’s shockingly slow on a few uptakes. These include his decision to take a job offered by the CIA, or rather, a representative (Caitriona Balfe), who asks for his help in escape-proofing a new privatized facility undertaken by the agency in lieu of its recent rejection of extraordinary rendition. That Abigail and Hush are instantly suspicious makes sense, but that Ray believes this story is a problem, if not an outright joke, and with this moment, he loses all coherence as any kind of man.
So okay: Ray has to get into a bad situation with the CIA as institution as much as with the prison he’s about to enter. In case you’re inclined to forget this, the prison’s problems are embodied by the odious warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) (“You belong to me”) and his ruthless head guard Drake (Vinnie Jones). It helps as well that Hobbes’ facility, named the Tomb, features prisoners termed “game-changers,” men who can never ever, ever be released, as well guards who carry automatic weapons and wear dark masks (though not nearly enough body armor, it turns out), as well as glass cubicles for cells and all manner of surveillance equipment.
Ray has work cut out for him, to be sure. Lucky for him and you, inside he’s soon acquainted with an equal of sorts, Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), as well as their supposedly unlikely but completely predictable compatriot Javed (Faran Tahir), a devout Muslim and righteously angry inmate, someone who—following on the film’s mention of extraordinary rendition, embodies an argument against inhumane, illicit, and indefinite detention. Before you can say “Oz,” the prisoners devise a plan to get out, complete with staged fights, stupid guard routines, a jerry-rigged sextant, and oh yes, a doctor (Sam Neill) whom they convince to help them by reminding him of his Hippocratic oath (he goes so far as to look up the oath in a book on his desk, because, apparently, he really has forgotten it!).
The three prisoners’ relationship is complicated for a moment by their mutual distrust, transformed pretty much instantly by their shared loathing of the institution—per se and as a metaphor too. Thus the movie makes its basic caper-style plot into something of a political critique, a railing against global corporatism, US imperialism, and oh yes, invasive surveillance too. That it’s also mixed up with actionated stunts and silly one-liners (“You hit like a vegetarian!”) makes plain—let’s say, overstates—the movie’s investment in bodies, also per se and as metaphors.
Just so, for all the expected bits about bodies punched and slammed, broken, shot, and slashed, the film also exploits the two very famous bodies at its center. While observing and perhaps flinching at the specter of Rambo and the Terminator tortured by sleep-depriving lights or contained in tiny little spaces, hammered by Drake or interrogated by Hobbes, you might also take a moment to think about these particular bodies. The movie encourages that by a couple of simple, elegant compositions, posing the two aging men alongside one another, from the back and below, their frames still hulking but also visibly damaged by years of steroids, stunts, and assorted other abuses.
As they lean toward or away from one another, gazing on tanned and creased faces, framed by perfectly styled and dyed hair, you can’t help but ponder what kind of men might spend so many years creating these bodies, deliberately abusing them, and making them into emblems—of personal ambition, surely, but also of collective meaning. Whether you see them as icons or parodies, they’re some kind of men.