After watching Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger get together for a couple of “Expendables” missions, we concluded that while it’s fun to remember ’80s popcorn-movie thrills, fully recapturing those thrills might be impossible. These are overdue dream teamings — ideally, there ought to be a sensation of experiencing something that makes us lose our genre-geek minds with excitement. Instead, these throwbacks have been a case of, let’s face it, giving a free pass to OK-not-great guilty pleasures. They’re older, we’re older — what can you do?
For the first half-hour of Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s new prison-break pairing, “Escape Plan,” you start to rethink what’s possible. Director Mikael Håfström (“Derailed”) serves up old-school action that’s crisp, not lunkheadedly creaky. Trouble is, it’s all Sly’s show — Ahnold hasn’t even come into the picture yet. The moment he does, some of the air goes out of the room, along with a lot of the cleverness. There are still kicks to be had, but we’re squarely back in indulgence territory.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a brawny, brainy security consultant who makes his living infiltrating maximum security prisons and discovering their vulnerabilities. An opening breakout sequence is just another day at the office for Breslin, whose recap of how he and his sidekicks (Amy Ryan and, yep, 50 Cent) did it plays like “MacrGyver” mixed with the smugness of a “CSI” wrap-up.
Breslin’s partner and numbers guy (Vincent D’Onofrio) sets him up with a lucrative new challenge: testing the integrity of a secretly located super-penitentiary for prisoners the CIA and others want “disappeared.” But even in a place where the law knows no bounds, Murphy’s Law still holds, as Breslin learns that he’s somehow been set up and left to rot in prison for real.
Enter a silver-goateed Schwarzenegger as Breslin’s fast friend and fellow inmate, the colorfully named Emil Rottmayer. We’re meant to see Rottmayer as a shrewd survivalist, but somehow that’s undermined slightly by all his open yammering with Breslin about their next move — just one of the many ways that the proceedings turn from slick to silly, fast. For all his gleeful malevolence and vaunted security tech, the warden (Jim Caviezel, playing it broad) isn’t exactly a hawklike presence. The facility’s underwhelming design — big glass cubes stacked in a warehouse space — also doesn’t cry “no escape.” The prison population isn’t a whole lot more intimidating than the gangs in “Beat It.” And when Schwarze-negger’s character pretends to freak out as part of one ploy, frantically praying in German, naturally there are subtitles, lest there be any confusion about all that Gott-im-Himmel stuff.
For all the nonsense, Håfström and the movie do give a few more flashes of that initial sharpness, of something better. The big reveal of the supermax’s mystery location is a cool moment. The story floats some obvious but apt Guantánamo musings. In one amusing bit of dialogue, Stallone and Schwarze-negger kid each other about being smarter than they look. For a little while at least, we thought we might be able to say the same about “Escape Plan.”