Talking Movies: Escape Plan 3

Talking Movies

Released: 2 July 2019
Director: John Herzfeld
Distributor: Lionsgate/Universal Pictures
Budget: $70.6 million
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Dave Bautista, Max Zhang, Harry Shum Jr, Devon Sawa, and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

The Plot:
Ray Breslin’s (Stallone) past comes back to haunt him when Lester Clark Jr (Sawa), the son of his former business associate, abducts a number of people, including his girlfriend, and holds them hostage within the “Devil’s Station”, a sadistic supermax prison, leading Ray and his friend, Trent DeRosa (Bautista), to concoct a desperate rescue attempt.

The Background:
Escape Plan 2 (Miller, 2018) may have been a critical and commercial failure but, during filming, Stallone announced a third entry in the franchise that had started as as a decent excuse to bring him together with his action rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and had descended into a mediocre and disappointing straight-to-DVD franchise. Also titled Escape Plan: The Extractors, the third film dropped many of the new cast members from its predecessor and received a very limited theatrical release outside of the United States. Because of this limited release, Escape Plan 3 outperformed its predecessor, making just over $30 million at the box office but falling quite far from the almost $140 million of the first film. It did, at least, receive noticeably more positive reviews than the second film.

The Review:
The first thing to note about Escape Plan 3 is that, despite the sequel spending most of its runtime focusing on Breslin’s protégé’s Shu Ren (Huang Xiaoming) and Lucas Graves (Jesse Metcalfe), neither of these characters make an appearance in the third film, which instead introduces even more new characters. This time around, Daya Zhang (Malese Jow), daughter of Wu Zhang (Russell Wong), is kidnapped by Lester Clark Jr as part of an elaborate revenge plot against Ray. Wu Zhang is the head of Zhang Innovations, the company responsible for the construction of the Tomb; you’d think that this would be the catalyst for bring Ray into the fold considering he swore to track down those responsible for such prisons at the end of the last film but, instead, he is only drawn into the plot when Daya’s bodyguard, Bao Yung (Shum, Jr), delivers him Lester’s video threat.

Lester seeks to avenge his father and nab a hefty ransom in the process.

Lester Clark Jr is, of course, the son of Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio), Ray’s former partner who betrayed him and had him locked up in the Tomb; his plan for revenge involves taking a bunch of hostages, including Daya and Ray’s girlfriend, Abigail Ross (Jaime King), hostage inside another supermax prison, the “Devil’s Station”, and demanding a $700 million random. A ruthless, callous mercenary, Lester surrounds himself with imposing goons (including one of my favourite actors and stunt men, the great Daniel Bernhardt) but is perfectly happy to execute his hostages, including Abigail, to make his point and to make his revenge all the sweeter.

Ray assembles a team for his rescue mission and to settle the score with Lester.

All this amounts to a far more personal story this time around for Ray and for his new associates, who get a lead on Lester’s location from DeRosa; in the last film, this took DeRosa about a day and he had to go bust a few heads to get the information Ray needed but, this time, DeRosa simply guesses that Lester’s at the Devil’s Station and that’s it, they’re off without any fuss or muss. Lester alone would be enough to make things personal for Ray but, when Abigail is kidnapped and, later, killed, Ray launches into a vendetta alongside DeRosa, Shen Lo (Zhang), Daya’s former bodyguard and lover, and Yung. It’s personal for these latter two as well; Shen because of his feelings from Daya and Yung because he feels (and is constantly told) that he failed Daya by not being able to keep her safe. Unlike the Tomb and especially unlike Hades, the Devil’s Station is much more of a traditional prison; located in Latvia, the facility is a rundown, desolate hellhole designed to be an intimidating and demoralising maze. There’s no fancy high-tech hazards this time around, they’re not adrift in the sea, and there’s no complex system to hack into; instead, it’s just good, old fashioned iron bars, ruthless inmates, and the foreboding presence of Lester and his callous minions.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Thankfully, Escape Plan 3 is much more coherent than its predecessor; with my senses no longer bombarded by erratic shaky cam and frantic editing, the film (and, more importantly, the action scenes) is much easier on the eyes and the pace is much improved as a result. It also helps considerably that the film isn’t bathed in constant near darkness, with many scenes within the Devil’s Station taking on a disconcerting yellow hue.

Despite having a team, this doesn’t really factor into the infiltration plan.

Unlike the last two films, which understandably involved breaking out of prisons, Escape Plan 3 is much more of a rescue movie; Ray and his team have to break into the Devil’s Station to rescue the hostages and confront Lester, meaning the film automatically stands out from its predecessors by putting Ray and his abilities in a much different situation. This necessitates the need for a team, meaning a much bigger role for Bautista this time around; if you’re a fan of 50 Cent and got excited when you saw his character, Hush, on the poster and the actor’s name share top billing then you’re in for a disappointment, though, as, while Hush does contribute more to the film and the team this time around, he’s still relegated to tech support. To be fair, though, the actual “team” aspect of the film isn’t as emphasised as you might expect either as they quickly split up to infiltrate the facility and Breslin largely disappears for a noticeable chunk of the movie.

The fight between Ray and Lester is a brutal, gritty affair, at least.

Unfortunately, given the low-tech approach of the Devil’s Station, the actual infiltration involves a lot of wandering around in poorly-lit sewer tunnels; thankfully, what the film lacks in visual presentation, it more than makes up for with some brutal action and kills. Driven to unbridled rage by Abigail’s death, Breslin’s normally composed demeanour cracks, leading to a vicious showdown with Lester. Devon Sawa, who I only really know for his role in Final Destination (Wong, 2000) and for appearing in the music video for Eminem’s “Stan”, actually makes for a fairly decent antagonist; a damaged and violent individual, Lester’s blind devotion to revenge against Breslin and those whom he feel used and betrayed his father makes for a volatile and unhinged villain. This isn’t some slick, corporate asshole in a suit; this is a ruthless mercenary who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty or to twist the knife in any way he can and his inevitable contribution with Breslin is easily the highlight of the film. Rather than some slick, overly choreographed affair, this fight is a brutal, hard-hitting brawl that brings Breslin back into the fray with a bang and allows him to extract a measure of revenge.

The Summary:
Escape Plan 3 is a definite improvement over the second film and it’s telling that the film goes out of its way to connect more with the first movie than reference the second. Still, as gritty and visceral as the film can be, and as interesting as it is to see a more personal story being told with Breslin and to place him in a different situation (breaking in instead of out), Escape Plan 3 still can’t compare with the first movie. It’s not even about Arnold Schwarzenegger at this point (though his continued absence from the franchise is a bitter pill to swallow), it’s just that the sequels can barely pull together a coherent and engaging film. While Stallone’s role is noticeably bigger this time around, he’s still more of a supporting character; Bautista is similarly criminally underutilised, meaning Escape Plan 3 ends up being about a bunch of new characters who aren’t anywhere near as interesting to look at or follow. If more of the actors from the second film had returned then, maybe, it would have allowed for a bit more investment in their fates but, still, Escape Plan 3 fails to really be anything more than a mediocre action/thriller that is noticeably better than the second…but that’s not exactly a high bar to clear.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

What did you think to Escape Plan 3? Did you find it more enjoyable than the second film or did you, perhaps, think it was just as bad, if not worse? What do you think to the trilogy overall? Do you think the films would have been better if Schwarzenegger had returned or would they still have failed to impress upon you? What do you think to Bautista as an actor and do you think he is deserving of bigger, more varied roles? No matter what you think, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check back in for more Stallone content later in the year!

Talking Movies: Escape Plan 2

Talking Movies

Released: 29 June 2018
Director: Steven C. Miller
Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Budget: $20 million
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Huang Xiaoming, Dave Bautista, Jesse Metcalfe, Wes Chatham, and Titus Welliver

The Plot:
Ray Breslin (Stallone) has expanded his operation, taking on Shu Ren (Xiaoming) and Lucas “Luke” Graves (Metcalfe) as protégés. However, when Shu is kidnapped and imprisoned in a high-tech prison named “Hades”, Luke, Ray, and Ray’s associate, Trent DeRosa (Bautista), must find a way to infiltrate the most dangerous prison in the world to rescue him.

The Background:
After the financial success of Escape Plan (Håfström, 2013), which finally brought action legends Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger together in a meaningful way, a sequel was announced in 2016. Perhaps due to the fact that the first film recouped most of its box office success from the Chinese market, Escape Plan 2 (also known as Escape Plan 2: Hades) featured a more international cast and even received a limited theatrical release in China. Rather than bring these two stars back together for a bigger, better sequel, Escape Plan was released straight to DVD outside of China, Schwarzenegger was entirely absent, and even Stallone was reduced to more of a supporting role. Unsurprisingly, Escape Plan 2 was therefore a box office bomb, making a little over $17 million at the box office and receiving scathing reviews and Stallone regarded it as the “most horribly produced film [he had] ever had the misfortune to be in”.

The Review:
Escape Plan 2 begins in Chechnya where Lucas, Shu Ren, and another of Breslin’s protégés, Jaspar Kimbral (Chatham), are attempting to free hostages; as an opening action sequence to show off our new protagonists, this is a bit of a frantic mess thanks to some shaky editing and low lighting. Regardless, it’s immediately obvious that Lucas is the blunt instrument of the group, Shu is the slick martial artist, and Kimbral is the weak link in the team since, thanks to his blind trust in his “algorithm”, his attempt to go off mission results in the death of a hostage. Unimpressed, Breslin fires Kimbral since he can’t trust him and believes that his algorithm is flawed and that Kimbral is letting his personal rivalry with Shu cloud his judgement in the field.

Shu must use all of Breslin’s teachings and tactics to figure out an escape plan of his own.

About a year later, while protecting his cousin, Yusheng Ma (Chen Tang), Shu is suddenly attacked and wakes up imprisoned in a super high-tech supermax prison known as “Hades”, which has (somehow) been built out of the remnants of the Tomb from the first film. Inside Hades, prisoners are regularly pitted against each other in brutal fights that result in rewards for the winners and punishment for the losers, or those who refuse to fight. Gregor Faust (Welliver), the “Zookeeper” of Hades, reveals that Shu and Yusheng are free to go the moment Yusheng hands over his communications patents. He also bumps into Kimbral and the three form a reluctant team as Shu falls back on Breslin’s training to formulate an escape plan; similar to Breslin in the last film, this involves learning the intricacies of Hades’ layout, staying mentally and physically fit, and manipulating any resource he can to his advantage which, naturally, leads to many a fight with fellow inmates and to him befriending others, such as Akala (Tyron Woodley), from whom he learns about Hades’ routines.

Hades is a largely automated and ridiculously futuristic facility.

Unlike the Tomb, Hades is a fully automated, high-tech prison; prisoners are kept in futuristic cells and restrained by forcefields and paralysing jolts of electricity. In place of guards, Hades favours robots (even the prisoner doctor is a robot!) but, thanks to Breslin’s training, Shu is able to ascertain a rough idea of the layout of the facility from the few areas he can see and even those he can’t. This allows him to figure out that the prison is constantly rotating, shifting, and moving without the inmates noticing and, thanks to manipulating the fight/reward system, learn the exact layout of the prison from a cult-like group of stoic hackers.

Ray turns to DeRosa for help but, sadly, Bautista’s role is very minimal.

Meanwhile, outside of Hades, Breslin and his team work to track down Shu and the location of Hades; this ends up with Lucas also being captured and sent to Hades and Ray meeting up with an old acquaintance, Trent DeRosa, who, despite his size and intimidating nature, is an eloquent and surprisingly intelligent individual. A man of taste and deliberation, DeRosa brings intellect and aptitude as much as his physical capabilities but, sadly, his role is largely minimal; Bautista can be a magnetic presence when he appears in films and I respect the guy’s range but I can’t imagine that being in this dreg of a film really did much to elevate his profile.

The Nitty-Gritty:
If there’s one thing Escape Plan 2 has going for it, it’s some pretty decent, hard-hitting action; thanks to an influx of Chinese actors, fights are generally fast-paced, impactful, and full of impressive flips, kicks, and wire work. There’s a slickness to the action this time around that makes fights more heavily choreographed and elaborate than before but still brutal and gritty, just in a noticeably different, more frenetic way. Since the story jumps in and out of Hades to tell its two concurrent plots, we also get a bit more gunplay and a few more car chases this time around but the problem is that everything is shot so cheaply and so shakily and Hades is so poorly lit that it’s incredibly difficult to really follow what’s happening as the camera keeps dashing and darting all over the place, zooming in and out of focus and never stopping to really let the action breathe.

Kimbral is motivated purely by revenge and money, which isn’t very interesting for a villain.

Of course, the big twist of the film is that Kimbral is actually the prison warden and that the entire point of Hades was to one-up Shu and stick it to Ray by building a prison completely immune to his teachings and philosophy. Once this twist is revealed, Kimbral immediately throws on his suit and becomes a slick, arrogant, corporate antagonist who revels in lording his superiority of his former teammates and is motivated by nothing more than good, old-fashioned revenge (and money, of course). Sadly, what brings Escape Plan 2 down (and I mean way down) is the focus not on Breslin or even DeRosa but on his two protégés, who are far less dynamic and charismatic than either actor and no other addition to the cast could ever even hope to match Schwarzenegger’s star power or the appeal of seeing him onscreen with Stallone.

Sadly, neither of Breslin’s protégés are that interesting or dynamic protagonists.

Stallone is relegated to a mere supporting role; his teachings live on through Shu but, as capable and smart as Shu is, Xiaoming is no Stallone and it’s very strange to me that the script chooses not to capitalises on Stallone’s presence. The film could easily have been restructured to have Ray be the one locked up in Hades at the mercy of Shu (rather than Kimbral) and teaming up with DeRosa on the inside to battle against a host of young Chinese newcomers. Instead, Ray enters Hades far too late for me to really care about what’s going on; even when he’s inside the prison, he’s largely absent from the film. You’d think the action and intensity would ramp up almost immediately as the disgruntled student (Kimbral) jumped at the chance to make the master (Breslin) pay but, instead, Ray is able to freely communicate with Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) to shut down Hade’s automated systems and to unite the inmates in a desperate escape attempt with very little in the way of opposition. Kimbral’s whole thing is being an arrogant upstart, a slighted child, rather than an imposing or formidable threat to our heroes; the Zoopkeeper makes a valiant effort to try and make up for this and even though Breslin and Kimbral do inexplicably end up settling their difference in a fist fight, both antagonists are easily dispatched with little effort on Ray or Shu’s part.

The Summary:
I haven’t really looked into it to check for sure but I’m pretty sure that Escape Plan 2 is the first time a Stallone movie has ever gone straight to DVD; considering the first movie had the weight and star power of two of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, it blew my mind to see the sequel have a smaller budget, significantly less star power, and be relegated to a home media release. However, it’s easy to see why the film went straight to DVD as it’s pretty much a mess from start to finish; poor cinematography, messy editing, and an overly elaborate and unrealistic setting means that all the choreography in the world cannot keep Escape Plan 2 from being anything more than a disappointing waste of time and talent. This could have been a nice little sub franchise of fun action films involving Stallone and Schwarzenegger getting into some entertaining hijinks but, instead, we got a mediocre action film that even Jean-Claude Van Damme would have thought twice about signing up to.

My Rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Terrible

So…what did you think to Escape Plan 2? How did to compare to the original for you? Were you a fan of the new blood featured in the film or do you agree that Stallone and Bautista should have had bigger roles? Were you surprised that the film went straight to DVD and can you think of any other big budget films that dropped off a cliff in the same way? What’s your favourite prison break movie? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and check back in next Friday for my review of the third film in the franchise.

Talking Movies: Escape Plan

Talking Movies

Released: 18 October 2013
Director: Mikael Håfström
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Budget: $54 to 70 million
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Vinnie Jones, and Vincent D’Onofrio

The Plot:
Ray Breslin (Stallone) is the world’s foremost authority on escaping supermax prisons; however, when he’s double-crossed and thrown into the most impenetrable prison ever, the Tomb, he must team up with fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) in order to escape the supposedly inescapable facility.

The Background:
Throughout the eighties and the nineties, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had something of an intense professional rivalry going on; with both best known for their action movie roles, the two musclebound actors frequently clashed over body counts, box office receipts, and caused each other to make some significant career blunders before finally coming together to launch Planet Hollywood and collaborate on the Expendables trilogy (Various, 2010 to 2014). Originally a spec script that was rumoured to be a vehicle for fellow actor star Bruce Willis, Escape Plan brought these two heavy-hitters together in a significant collaboration for the first time which, most likely, contributed to the film’s impressive box office gross of just shy of $140 million. Critical reception may have been mixed but that didn’t stop the production of two direct-to-DVD sequels that I’ll also be covering over the next two Fridays.

The Review:
To help sell the concept of the film, and Ray’s abilities as a master escape artist, Escape Plan begins, appropriately enough, with Ray in a prison and concocting an elaborate and multifaceted escape plan; immediately his nigh-impossible adaptability, psychological, and physical aptitude is emphasised for all to see as Ray goes to great lengths to ingratiate himself into prison society and learn the strengths, weaknesses, and routines of the system, its guards, and its inmates. Ray is able to exploit even the smallest flaws thanks to his keen eye, attention to detail, and commitment to his craft; he’s a master psychologist and an extremely intelligent and attentive individual, which is a nice change of pace for Stallone, who is often unfairly typecast as a bit of a meathead.

Thanks to Ray’s skills, his team has developed a reputation for being the best at what they do.

Of course, Ray is physically capable of holding his own as well, and he needs to be considering most of his plans to learn a prison’s systems or affect his escape involve getting into fights with other inmates and guards or a great deal of physical exertion on his part. When the chance arises to test the Tomb’s facilities, Ray’s team is immediately sceptical given the shady nature of the entire operation; Ray, however, cannot pass up the chance at a new challenge for his abilities and agrees to go against all of his usual safeguards to take on the job. Ray’s team is comprised of his partner and friend Lester Clark (D’Onofrio), his point-man Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and Abigail Ross (Amy Ryan), each of whom exhibit a sense of pride and confidence in their reputation and abilities to escape from even the most secure prison facilities thanks to Ray’s unparalleled reputation. Although they, in different ways, assist with Ray’s escape attempts, Ray’s breakouts are largely a result of his own unique set of skills and abilities rather than solely relying on outside help.

Rottmayer has an unusual fascination with Ray, leading to a reluctant team up between the two.

Once he realises that he’s been setup, Ray immediately puts his expertise to use in plotting out an intricate escape plan; at first, he is determined to follow through with this in his usual style, relying on little more than his skills and wits to find a way out but, very quickly, he’s forced to adapt to the Tomb’s complex structure and into forging a shaky alliance with the overly friendly Rottmayer. Seeing Schwarzenegger and Stallone finally sharing some significant screen time together is a blast and, unlike their awkward exchanges in The Expendables 2 (West, 2012), the two have some amusing and engaging rapport going on. Schwarzenegger, in particular, seems to be having a blast as Rottmayer, exuding a variety of different, uncharacteristic emotions and humour while still engaging in some brutal and gritty fight scenes.

Drake acts as the muscle for the malicious and sadistic Warden Hobbes.

The Tomb is overseen by Warden Hobbes (Caviezel), a malicious and sadistic individual who is unimpressed and personally insulted by Ray’s reputation; alongside his equally sadistic and aggressive head guard, Drake (Jones), Hobbes enforces a strict and brutal code throughout the Tomb that severely punishes and tortures any inmate who fails to fall in line or dares to defy his authority. Hobbes is a slick and conceited villain, mixing up the standard “guy-in-a-suit” cliché with a cruel mean streak and a stoic implacability towards his actions, Drake, in comparison, thoroughly enjoys trouncing the inmates and treating them like animals.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Of course, the big twist of Escape Plan is that the entire thing is a setup by Lester to eliminate Ray and that the Tomb is actually a complex floating prison; once Hobbes becomes aware of Ray’s true identity, he begins a systematic plan of torture and cruelty towards Ray in an effort to break his spirit and uncover the information he requires about the elusive Victor X. Mannheim. While it appears as though Hobbes is successful in physically and mentally breaking Ray, his determination remains steadfast thanks to his stubbirn nature and unlikely support from Rottmayer.

Of course these two action icons come to blows during the film.

Naturally, one of the highlights and main appealing factors of Escape Plan is the rare opportunity to see two of the biggest action stars in the world interact with each other. Ray and Rottmayer have an amusing and entertaining love/hate relationship where they join forces out of necessity and trade humorous barbs (“You hit like a vegetarian!” is a notable standout for me) as well as punches on numerous occasions not out of any malicious intent but as part of Ray’s elaborate plan to learn the layout and specifics of the Tomb. Rottmayer’s initial amiable attitude towards Ray and eventual, reluctant agreement to numerous stints in the tortuous solitary cubes is all motivated by the fact that he is secretly Mannheim and behind Ray’s hiring. Still, this is an uncharacteristically subdued role for Arnold, who emits a quiet confidence and warmth while also being pragmatic, witty, and physically imposing when required.

Ray’s elaborate escape plan requires the assistance of some unlikely allies.

The reluctant friendship between the two extends even further to other inmates of the Tomb, including the initially antagonist Javed (Faran Tahir); Javed, who is a long-time rival of Rottmayer and his gang, clashes with both on numerous occasions but, ultimately is turned into another ally when Ray is able to cobble together enough of a practical escape plan but requires considerable assistance to bring this into effect. This also includes appealing to the better nature of the jaded Doctor Kyrie (Sam Neill) in order to acquire all the knowledge and tools he needs to escape.

While neither are at their peak, the film is a decent collaboration for these two action stars.

Of course, being an action/thriller starring two of the biggest action stars in the world and Vinnie Jones, Escape Plan has its fair share of action and fight scenes; it’s not as loud and bombastic as many of the two’s previous efforts, instead emphasising a more gritty and brutal kind of violence, but it nevertheless gives its musclebound stars a chance to show off what made them so famous in the first place. The staged fight between Ray and Rottmayer is a particular highlight of mine as is the inevitable showdown between Ray and Drake, which is a particularly violent and hard-hitting confrontation that ends with Drake taking one hell of a fall down some stairs and to his well-deserved death. Hobbes, of course, doesn’t offer much in the way of a physical threat but he has some pretty tight and formidable security and makes an impression with his cold, conceited attitude; he also isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, which directly leads to his explosive end as the two make their dramatic escape.

The Summary:
Escape Plan may not be the greatest film of Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s career, and arguably came about twenty years too late to really capitalise on the two’s star power, but it’s far from the worst, too, and still has a great deal of appeal thanks to the unique and rare opportunity to see the two stars collaborating. It’s a relatively run of the mill concept that I’m sure has been done a few times before but elevated through their star power, the intensity of Caviezel, and the rapport between Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Fans of either man, and action/thrillers in general, should find a lot to like in Escape Plan and I’d say it’s well worth your time as it’s a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What are your thoughts on Escape Plan? Which were you a fan of back in the day, Stallone or Schwarzenegger, or were you a fan of both? Would you have liked to see the two team up during their prime or were you satisfied with the product we got? Would you like to see the two join forces again in the future? Are you a fan of prison escape films; if so, feel free to recommend them down in the comments, along with any other opinions you have. Also, be sure to check back in next week for my review of the sequel.