Escape Plan

escape planTwo action heavyweights compete to speak the most intelligibly attempt to escape the ultimate high-security prison in Escape Plan, another 1990s-like relic action picture popping up in 2013.  The film pairs Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as co-leads, and unfortunately, the teaming feels less exciting than it should, partly because the stars have shared a frame before in both cheeseball Expendables movies, and also because the prison thriller fails to drive outside of its outdated B-movie parameters.  Somehow, though, the buddy-flick still passes as mindless nostalgic entertainment.

If you think you’re getting an updated version of these two icons in a more modern movie, think again.  Escape Plan is just about as silly as The Expendables entries or any of the action films the stars participated in during the 1980s.  Stallone plays a prison-escape expert, Ray Breslin, who takes a job essentially off the books, under the radar, and behind the veil.  He agrees to be planted in a secret prison facility that his regular outside team members (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson and Amy Ryan) can not know about.  Ray is abducted in a van, drugged, and awakens in a glass cell. Once introduced to the serpent warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), Ray realizes he literally can’t escape this prison, as someone set him up to ‘be buried here.’  Ray doesn’t know why, and only with the help of a new trusted inmate, Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), might Ray be able to find a way out for them both.

ArnoldEscapeThe premise of the film, while silly and always rather nonsensical, deserves better execution, as do Stallone and Schwarzenegger.  Director Mikael Håfström adds very little flavor or interest to liven up what turns out to be an occasionally violent straightforward drama.  The action comes in marginal doses and Håfström has no idea what do with these two men or how to film a scene in truly exciting fashion.  The script also needed to smarter as it fails to fully delve into the idea of high-tech prison know-how.  Stallone’s character attempts seemingly simple, logical methods of escape, but the film never allows the character to pull off an imaginative trick in order to advance his evasion.

At the very least, the film should have been rewritten to better accommodate Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s personalities.  Rarely even does the dialogue poke fun at the aging stars (outside of a few token cheesy one-liners), nor do the filmmakers ever take any of the scenes particularly seriously by ratcheting up the intensity levels.  Instead, Sly and Arnold carry the entire movie on their backs, and the hope is that their mere presence is enough to make Escape Plan enjoyable.

Escape Plan 10Luckily, Arnold and Sly are pros in this sort of game and they seem to be enjoying each other’s company  even when the actual ‘escape plan’ and intelligence of Stallone’s character rarely give the film any depth or believability.  The plan is never actually all that exciting in and of itself.  Instead the confrontations set up by the two lead characters keep us watching and holding out.  Stallone is far more watchable here than he has been in his recent efforts.  Schwarzenegger adds a refreshing air to the movie as he hams up nearly every scene he can.

The excitement builds quite a bit more toward the climax which gives us fans a taste of the blow-em-up action the stars typically warrant.  It’s not enough to earn action-classic status, and Escape Plan certainly never lives up to its potential, but there’s just enough from Stallone and Schwarzenegger to enjoy it purely as a mild guilty pleasure that manages to escape callow direction and a lacking script.  If you’re a fan of these two icons, then you should at least enjoy it.  If not, there is admittedly little to love here.

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The Last Stand

thelaststandIf 2013 quickly begins to look like 1988, you’re not crazy.  The great triumvirate of action stars (and Expendables buddies) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis return to cinemas laying the smackdown with their own respective starring films.  February kicks off with Sly’s Bullet to the Head, and V-Day brings the fifth(!) entry of the Die Hard franchise for Willis.

Schwarzenegger launches the retro time warp this weekend with his return to the big screen in leading man capacity after a 10-year absence.  He was busy governing a state or something and racking up a bevy of bad press.  The 65-year-old icon sets out to prove he’s still got the chops to be a seasoned action hero by headlining The Last Stand, a modern-day western set in southern western corner of Arizona, in the small town of Sommerton Junction which shares the border of Mexico.

Ahnuld plays the small-town sheriff Ray Owens looking forward to his day off when he spots two mysterious truckers in the local diner.  Something feels out of place, and it’s ironically not the senior citizen, Austrian-accented tree trunk in a sheriff’s uniform sitting at the breakfast bar.  Meanwhile, federal agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) attempts to a transport a highly dangerous incarcerated drug cartel leader, Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) to a death row facility, but his team inevitably finds an intercepting band of assassins that snatch the criminal from the Feds’ slippery fingers.  Cortez escapes in a specially modified ZR1 Corvette—faster than any chopper, and utilizes his men to run off all law enforcement blockades.

Somehow the sleepy town of Sommerton and the 200 mph fugitive will cross paths, and Owens knows this after finding a local farmer murdered by a high-caliber weapon.  He exchanges a few words with Agent Bannister about how the events are connected, but Owens “has seen enough blood and death, and he knows what’s coming.”  The muscled sheriff locks down Sommerton and brings his lackluster team of three local cops (Luis Guzman, Jamie Alexander, Zach Gilford) and two appointed deputies together (Johnny Knoxville and Rodrigo Santoro) to stand in the way of the cartel before the evil Cortez can speed his way into Mexico and out of the hands of the law leading to a rough-and-tumble shootout of epic proportions.

Directed by the highly praised foreign filmmaker Jee-woon Kim, he brings Schwarzenegger to light like we’ve never seen him before.  The Last Stand is a slow boil, with more character and nuance than any of Arnold’s earlier shoot-em-ups.  As ballistic and violent as this film is, it is very much a good old fashioned western in a modern small town setting.  Even though this is the former governor’s show, the supporting characters actually have a great deal of development, and a surprising amount of humor spills over into nearly every scene.

TheLastStand2Knoxville and Guzman get the best laughs, as do a few random locals.  But Schwarzenegger gets the most applause, again commanding the action and even bringing some much needed vulnerability to the beady-eyed old-timer that is called upon to do the impossible.  The action in this film, in its limited scope, is some of the most impressively shot of Arnold’s career, updating the star’s fisticuffs and bullet-dodging to a gritty and current visual aesthetic impressively captured by the sharp eye of a wild-card choice for a director.

The Last Stand doesn’t do anything particularly original with its story, but the action set pieces are undeniably creative and impressive.  Sitting through this thriller, I realized how small of a film it really is, far from the excessive branding brought on by Arnold’s wildest adventures from the 90s like Eraser and True Lies.  This is a character-based slow burn Western that eventually bursts into a full-blown war zone.  I enjoyed Last Stand more than I thought I would, and for different reasons, even though I was predisposed to enjoy it as a Schwarzenegger fan.  This is likely his most out-of-place action film, but I think patient audiences will love it, and I for one welcome the return of Ahnuld who has most definitely still got a punch or two left in him.

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The Expendables

Fans of 80’s classics Cobra, Commando, Rambo II, Above the Law, Bloodsport, and Missing in Action should be rejoicing over Sylvester Stallone’s pool of testosterone in The Expendables, his attempt at delivering the highest-caliber shoot-em-up/martial arts/men-on-a-mission thrill ride featuring a discounted menu of Senior action icons.  Why is it that perhaps the most promising film concept of the season turns out to be such a dud?

The answer: Sylvester Stallone, the writer/director.

I’ll give the man some credit as the lead star—at age 64, he’s bringing it, botox and all.  Ripped to shreds, and pumped up with steroids (there just can’t be any other way), Stallone returns to cinemas as Barney Ross, leader of a mercenary squad hired by Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) to take out a former CIA operative, Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his drug-trading South American general Garza (David Zayas).  Stallone wants a payment of $5 million for his team which includes a list of hand-me-down single-trait killers.

Among the line-up we have Jason Statham as Lee Christmas, a blade-wielding expert, believing wholeheartedly that knives travel faster than bullets.  Jet Li plays martial-artist Ying Yang, but his sole trait is that he’s made fun of for his height.  Why don’t they call him Short-Round?  UFC fighter Randy Couture really has no traits except for awkwardly explaining his cauliflower ear.  Terry Crews is only memorable for toting an AA-12 shotgun (much like Jesse Ventura being memorable for sporting a Gatling gun in Predator).  Finally, Dolph Lundgren plays Gunner, messed up on drugs and a thirst for blood, an uncontrollable rage that gets him tossed to the curb and wanting to exact revenge.

After Ross accepts the mission from Mr. Church, he and Christmas head out to their South American location to scope out their targets and who all is involved.  The two end up launching an attack on the entire base after nearly being captured along with their informant, Sandra (Giselle Itie), the daughter of Gen. Garza.  Upon the boys’ escape, Sandra refuses to leave and gets captured by her father’s army.  Ross returns to listen to the team’s mechanic, Tool (Mickey Rourke), tell a Vietnam story about a woman he failed to save that has haunted him ever since.  That story apparently shakes up Ross clogging his brain with guilt and remorse, and he decides to return to the island and rescue the woman, but his men refuse to let him go alone.  Meanwhile, former teammate Gunner has given up his old team to Munroe and has plans to stop the ‘expendables’ from succeeding.

The Expendables has only one good scene—where Rourke pours his heart out over his Vietnam regret.  As potentially forced as Stallone’s dramatic change of heart may be following Rourke’s speal, the scene still plays out very well, and it’s the only real ‘acting’ moment in the entire movie.  I know some will be questioning about the obligatory scene featuring Schwarzenegger and Willis hamming it up with Stallone.  Well, as much fun as the scene should be, it isn’t.  It’s forced.  It’s awkward.  It’s poorly written, if scripted at all—much like the rest of the film.  Schwarzenegger plays a competing mercenary leader that used to work with Stallone, but they went their separate ways.  He tells Willis, “Give this job to my friend, he loves playing in the jungle.”  Bruce says of Arnold, “What’s that guy’s problem?”  Stallone: “He wants to be president.”  So much for what could have been.  But that’s the problem with Stallone’s entire movie.

This had all the potential in the world, and the movie disappointingly feels like a cut-and-paste assignment thrown together so sloppily because of Stallone’s desire to cram a bunch of action stars together.  He delivers zero character development, the plot makes absolutely no sense, and I hardly believe Stallone’s sudden transition in wanting to rescue this younger woman (suggesting an awkward romance between her and the action star who is 30 years her senior).  Also be sure to watch out for any of the dialogue, as it hits you in the gut so hard with its stupidity that you’ll be puking within the first 20 minutes.  I’m not talking about funny camp-style 80s one-liners.  I’m talking about terribly-written dialogue meeting awful line readings, one after the other—particularly from Lundgren and Li.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the film isn’t the bad acting, or the horrible writing, or the lacking camradery among the Expendables, but it is Stallone’s way of filming most of the scenes.  Shot almost completely in close-up the entire time, Stallone zooms in on these stars’ individual faces, even in multi-character moments, and it is beyond awkward.  Trust me, he’s not doing these old-timers any favors.  Even in scenes showcasing the location of the island, the extras in the town are shot in close-up, and it becomes unbelievably distracting.

If that’s not enough, even the fight sequences have little creativity and energy.  Granted, the final action bout on the island featuring the entire mercenary squad against a hundred or so faceless enemy soldiers works about as best as it can, if you can tell what’s going on—which is a rare occasion.  The battles also feature hilariously cheesy CGI blood and sloppy special effects surrounding the mayhem as the film’s MPAA rating was never decided on until late in the game.  Since the movie could have ended up being PG-13, I guess no physical fake blood was used during filming, and it really shows.

In fact, all of the film’s flaws really show.  It seems to be an embarrassing exercise in rushed filmmaking with little substance to build on from the get-go.  I love the concept of The Expendables, and I really feel as though I wasn’t expecting top-notch quality here.  But Stallone, who actually put out a solid and gratuitous fourth Rambo installment just two years ago, ought to know how to write and direct at this point.  It feels as though he did neither here, having his film fare about the same as these Direct-to-DVD actioners we see Steven Seagal and Van Damme releasing five of a year.  For the inevitable sequel, I hope Sly stays in front of the camera and allows another filmmaker to take the reigns, perhaps Quentin Tarantino?  Hey, I can dream.

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Predator

Action junkies know “Predator,” and know it well.  The film stands as my favorite among all guilty pleasures.  Its talented director John McTiernan went on to direct to action classics (Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October) before descending into faded career oblivion (Rollerball, Basic) and curious legal issues.  Its ripped-to-shreds stars shined in their prime.  The exotic Mexican jungle locations made for an exceptional landscape to showcase some great visuals and cinematography.  The film is also an excellent combination of genres–an action picture that evolves into science-fiction and ultimately horror.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Dutch Schaeffer, leader of a Special Forces team consisting of five other men sent into the South American jungle along with Dillon (Carl Weathers), a CIA combat operative and friend of Dutch.  Their mission: to rescue a cabinet minister and American hostages held captive by drug-trading guerrilla fighters.  Upon arriving in the guerrilla zone, Dutch and his men encounter a crashed military chopper and a collection of skinned human carcasses.  What to make of this?  “This isn’t human,” claims Dillon.  And it certainly isn’t, as the men eventually realize they are the targets of a relentless hunter from another world.  They cannot see it, but it certainly sees them, and begins to pick them off one by one.

Once “Predator” evolves from a typical Scwharzenegger shoot-em-up into a suspenseful chase movie, things really pick up.  McTiernan is a master at creating isolation.  He continued this trend with Bruce Willis as a one-man army trapped inside a skyscraper against a team of terrorists in “Die Hard.”  In “The Hunt For Red October,” he squeezed a group of nerve-wrecked men inside a Soviet submarine.  In “Predator,” his first major feature, this group of combat soldiers have all the firepower in the world, and they demonstrate it quite well when they mow down acres of jungle in a desperate attack against their unseen visitor.  The men become overwhelmed with terror when they realize ‘they hit nothing.’  Their endless jungle  has now become their tomb, as their rescue chopper will not arrive in time for them to survive.

The tension in Predator knows no bounds.  The actual creature hunting the men is seen very little throughout most of the movie.  Although the audience gets glimpses here and there of what the predator sees (infrared heat vision) and hears (which it quickly learns to mimic), the creature never manifests itself until a good way into the movie.  Prior to this scene where the Predator must tend to his wounds, he is only seen in a spacesuit of armor that bends light around his body so that he is camoflaged, and all you see of him is a distorted blur in the shape of his body.  The special effects really accomplished something here, designing an impressive effect that still holds up by today’s standards.

In fact, even though “Predator” is the epitome of 80s action-movie brawn and bravado, everything about the film holds up pretty well by today’s standards.  Sure, we don’t get the macho action pictures we used to twenty-five years ago (unless they go straight-to-DVD), but the look of the film, the special effects, and major action sequences still impress all these years later.  Obviously the brand name still works, as two lackluster ‘Alien vs. Predator’ films came to be in the last six years, and a new direct sequel to the 1987 film finally saw the light of day this past week.  Amazingly, of these attempts at reviving the Predator character, none captures the dread, suspense, intensity, action, nor looks as good as John McTiernan’s film.

Part of this is due to the mystery and discovery of the Predator, and his reveal in the final bout with Schwarzenegger’s character.  Up until then, the audience is glued to their seats waiting to see the monster responsible for all the mayhem.  The film also succeeds because of the fact that the entire production was built around Arnold Schwarzenegger, delivering the man of muscle an enemy worth competing with.  Soon enough it is easy to figure out that Arnold is in trouble, and not even his mammoth build or ego can be of match to such a beast.  If Arnold is to represent the perfect physical human specimen, then to see him tossed around like a rag doll makes for an interesting viewing.  Finally, “Predator” above all else, works so well because of Stan Winston’s creature design.  Once his creation fills up the screen, it really becomes worth the wait, as many monster reveals in movies disappoint and are hidden for good reason, Winston has never made a creature so hideous and horrific.  When Arnold says to the creature, “You’re one ugly mother f-cker,” he ain’t kidding.

Many filmmakers would try to copy McTiernan’s genre-shifting ways, including Robert Rodriguez with “From Dusk Till Dawn” (he also produces the new “Predators”).  But none would ever capture the high-level energy and efficiency of this fast-paced masterpiece on all counts.  Sure, many view “Predator” as a decent action film from the 80s full of cheesy one-liners and a lot of macho-man antics.  Heck, I didn’t even mention Jesse Ventura’s scene-chewing and tobacco chewing.  But hey, it all works as a brilliant, tightly constructed men-on-a-mission thriller that turns into a mano-a-mano battle of survival of the fittest between Arnold Schwarzenegger and a giant alien hunter, and as such succeeds in the genres of action, science-fiction, and horror.  Count this as the best ‘guy’ movie you will ever see.

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