Friday, October 25, 2013

Last Blood?

It’s pretty safe to say that we’re no longer where we were two or three decades ago.

Back then, it was the heyday for violent, R-rated fare. And two of the biggest movie stars on the planet were Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rambo. Predator. Rocky. Total Recall. Tango & Cash. Conan the Barbarian. Demolition Man. The Terminator. Cliffhanger. Eraser. Between these two men, Hollywood made billions at the global box office during the era that was the 1970’s through the mid-90's. Today, you can’t point at one actor or actress with that kind of guaranteed draw at the box office, and back then the industry had TWO.

Sadly, success was not meant to last forever. Part of the reason is that Stallone and Schwarzenegger are definitely byproducts of their era. At that time, we couldn’t get enough of the violent, pulpy and completely unbelievable action that permeated not only the movie industry but other facets of the entertainment industry as well; professional wrestling and American Gladiators were at their most popular, and our culture was definitely releasing some of the built-up frustration from the decades-long Cold War. Some of the most iconic moments in cinema were pithy one-liners from our action movies, as well. When Jesse Ventura uttered “I ain’t got time to bleed” in Predator, it was an instant classic. And he wasn’t even the STAR of the film. But changing times have seen the rise of films of multiple genres, including martial arts and “gore porn” (not to mention a similar rise in video games), most of whose heroes are not the jacked-up, testosterone-fueled supermen of the previous era, and while there are a few big men still succeeding in Hollywood, the aging action heroes of yesteryear have all but disappeared.
The team-up we've been waiting for since Expendables 2.
Still, these guys never quite go away, and they almost succeeded in a full-fledged comeback a few years ago with Stallone’s directorial effort The Expendables, which saw many of the older action heroes teaming up in an homage to movies past. Both Stallone and Schwarzenegger were part of that experience, and again two years later in the less heralded The Expendables 2. But now it looks like the Expendable phenomena might have run its course; practically nobody showed up to the actors' two releases this year, the puerile Bullet to the Head and the actually kinda-fun The Last Stand. Are we already tired of these aging stars of days gone by? Is the gimmick well and truly finished? Or will we still show up if they give us an Expendable­-like team-up in the form of new release Escape Plan?

Remember kids, drink your milk!
Formerly known as Exit Plan and The Tomb, Escape Plan features Stallone as Ray Breslin, a professional escape artist who breaks out of federal prisons in order to test their security measures. One day he is asked to step up to the next level, as the CIA want someone to test the viability of a new experimental prison for containing high-risk enemies of the State, based on Breslin's own study of prison design. But after accepting the job, things immediately go wrong as he is finds himself without intel, out of contact with his team and trapped in a hidden fortress surrounded by hundreds of the most dangerous people in the world. His only ally is Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), a career criminal with a few secrets of his own. Someone sent Ray Breslin here to die. As he attempts to escape, he is determined to find out who, and why.
He's going to "pump you up", and in prison that's just wrong.
Because this has all the earmarks of an old-school action flick (gratuitous violence, witty banter, etc) you'd be forgiven for expecting Escape Plan to be a generic action thriller, even more so because that's exactly what you're getting. Stallone and Schwarzenegger bring nothing new to the table besides Arnold's grey hairs and beard, though director Mikael Hafstrom (The Rite, 1408) manages to transition nicely from his more familiar horror fare to put together a decent well-rounded action film. That's the key word there, "decent." While the environment in which our heroes find themselves is pretty cool, everything else, from the faceless villain (Person of Interest's Jim Caviezel) and the rote plot to the cliched backstories, subplots and predictable twists mar the experience. But even with these things in the way, and a minor letdown of an ending, there's still a lot to like in this thriller, which goes heavy on the action in exciting and occasionally humorous ways.
Yup, "Fiddy" is here. 'Nuff said.
I really only have two complaints about the movie, though they're both major in nature. One is the treatment of co-stars. Obviously the bulk of the focus is on stars Stallone and Schwarzenegger (and they do as good a job as you would imagine), but there's actually a wealth of talented actors involved in this movie, and almost none of them have anything interesting to do. Caviezel, as I mentioned before, is fairly uninteresting as a character, though at least the actor's talent keeps it from slinking into irredeemable territory. But worse off are the trio of actors who play Ray's team on the outside. Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson doesn't show anything proving that he's got talent as an actor, so it's a relief that he doesn't have much to do (and when he does it's appropriately cringe-worthy). But both Amy Ryan and Vincent D'Onofrio are great actors who are hampered by a simplistic script and limited interaction with the audience. Add in a surprising (and also limited) appearance by Sam Neill, and a cast that could have ably supported its stars is left in the dust.
Hi, Amy Ryan! Bye, Amy Ryan!
The second issue is the script itself, especially the dialogue. I can accept most of the sweeping generalities in a Stallone/Schwarzenegger action flick, so the story itself - while truly and deeply flawed - shouldn't bother most thrill-seeking audiences. No, the problem is the "witty" banter that simply wasn't. Puns are bad enough when they actually tie into the scene or moment in question, but when they're used seemingly without reason, the result is less funny than confusing. Screenwriters Miles Chapman (original) and James Keller (rewrite) can't seem to make the dialogue work consistently, and even the best actors couldn't have pulled if off effectively (and interestingly enough, Schwarzenegger proves equally inadequate at acting in German as he does in English). It sucks when even the intensely-hated Batman & Robin has better puns in comparison, and is indicative of just how rushed the scriptwriting process obviously was.
Is there a reason they have masks? Is that ever explained?
Escape Plan looked like it could have been more than just a decent movie based on its star power alone. But Hafstrom's effort is too much of a love letter to an era of Hollywood history for which few people still really care. After a brief resurgence in nostalgic popularity, the lack of audiences for this feature might be proof that audiences are getting weary of plus-sized commandos and their feats of immortality. With so much varied fare out there, this specific brand of violent entertainment is definitely on its way out for the time being. If it will have any chance of a sustained comeback, more will be required from its genre than the bare-minimum effort of Escape Plan.

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