I'm a little shocked at how not-shitty Escape Plan is. Besides the novelty value of watching 80s action icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone well and truly share the screen together, it actually comes up with some clever ideas here and there: balanced against some ridiculous plot holes and the kind of era-specific spectacle that these boys used to eat for lunch. It shouldn't work. At all. And yet somehow director Mikael Hafstrom pulls a modestly entertaining rabbit out of his hat, and finds the kind of popcorn entertainment that our rather dismal summer struggled mightily to deliver.
It's also heavily steeped in nostalgia, with a heaping fistful of the kind of procedural ridiculousness that the two stars perpetrated in their prime. Escape Plan doles a lot of it out carefully – mostly in the big finale – but there's something gratifying about watching faceless minions with assault rifles who can't hit the broad side of a barn get picked off by a lone hero with a pistol dangling from a helicopter. The careful handling of that keeps it from becoming a joke while reminding us that only these two could get away with such shenanigans in this day and age.
The remainder of Escape Plan follows the tried-and-true formula promised in the ads, pitting the ultimate escape artist against the ultimate jail. The Tomb, an ultra-secret run-for-profit hellhole, proves too tempting for professional loophole finder Breslin (Stallone) to resist. He makes a living by posing as a prisoner in various federal institutions, then demonstrating exactly how permeable their supposedly invulnerable walls can be. The CIA wants him to test out The Tomb, but there's more afoot than it first appears, and Breslin soon finds himself trapped inside with no way out. He needs to enlist the help of a notorious fellow inmate (Schwarzenegger) while defying the heatless warden (Jim Caviezel), who knows who he is and doesn't much care.
It sounds like a set-up for testosterone-fueled idiocy and to some extent it is. But the script proves smarter than expected, with details that kind of make sense and plans that hold a certain internal logic, despite the numerous gaping questions afforded by the scenario.
Whenever the MacGuyer details don't quite work, we turn to our aging stars for aid, still carrying considerable presence augmented by their obvious relish at finally teaming up. (The Expendables movies don't quite count.) Sure, we can't understand a word they say sometimes – the longer expository scenes need a Rosetta Stone to crack – but they say it with great enthusiasm, and remain credible action stars despite their advancing age. Arnold also avails himself of a rare opportunity –to speak dialogue in his native German for the first time, while Stallone's disaffected smile keeps the tone fun and upbeat.
Hafstrom, for his part, provides a deft pacing that never flags, despite the lack of giant set pieces and copious effects that the leads commanded in their heyday. The diminished expectations of their later years play to Escape Plan's advantage. We don't expect much from it, and it responds by raising the bar past what we thought possible.
The nostalgia factor plays a big role too, reminding us of why these guys bestrode the Earth like a colossus back in the day and how much of their guilty-pleasure appeal remains intact. Their canon seems so charmingly quaint now: so home-spun and friendly in the face of recent soulless blockbusters. Of course, their movies were the soulless blockbusters once upon a time, a fact of which Escape Plan seems quietly aware. It invites us to share the joke, while taking a ride that doesn't quite rank as a classic, but can't help but put a smile on your face. As we pause in anticipation of Oscar season, it's nice to have some good dumb fun to keep us company. And who better to deliver it than these two jokers: a little older, a little creakier, but still doing what they do with so much delicious glee.