Stallone and Schwarzenegger finally teaming up in a big action movie should be a major event, and Escape Plan seemed like it had that potential from the trailer and the general premise. In the right hands, this could have been forged into a highly entertaining and exciting film. Unfortunately, at no fault of Stallone or Schwarzenegger, Escape Plan falters in a lot of ways stemming from the fact that it’s backed by a director, screenwriters, editor, and cinematographer that really have nothing of good, special note to their credits, and that really shows.
Ray Breslin (Sulvester Stallone) is the world’s foremost authority on structural security. After analyzing every high security prison and learning a vast array of survival skills so he can design escape-proof prisons, his skills are put to the test. A new, shady job to test out a CIA prison facility goes awry when he is abducted and incarcerated in a master prison designed based on his analytical work. Once inside, he finds an ally in fellow inmate Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who agrees to help him find a way out. Now, Breslin needs to escape and find the person who put him behind bars.
This is not a bad movie, but it has a number of obvious flaws that prevent it from really capitalizing on its assets. Escape Plan’s problems really begin with the screenplay. I don’t think this movie is very well written, let alone well executed. Firstly, the film becomes so pre-occupied over and over again with showcasing Ray Breslin’s long-winded analyses and exposition of his elaborate escape plan scenarios that it sucks up valuable, extensive screentime for it. Screentime that could have been used to actually establish and develop some characters and personalities in this movie. A good screenwriter could have deconstructed these moments far better and streamlined them for a much snappier, more succinct narrative. Instead, screenwriters Miles Chapman and Jason Keller decide to overcomplicate matters to the detriment of the film. For a while it seemed like Schwarzenegger’s character was merely there to give Stallone someone to dump exposition upon because it was so bluntly handled, and it doesn’t progress too far beyond that. Anyone who has read my reviews before knows how in-depth I go into performances and characters, but there is really next to nothing to comment on about these performances. It’s not a fault of the actors, but the material they are given.
I own a good thirty movies starring Stallone and/or Schwarzenegger with Rocky III and Predator being my respective favorites of theirs. I’ve seen them in great movies and bad movies, but they’ve always delivered on their exceptional charismatic screen presences. Here, there’s just extremely little material for them to inject any charisma into because it is so entrenched in exposition. There are one or two sparks of fun chemistry between them, but it’s very fleeting when that’s exactly what should have been here in abundance. What depth of character we get is merely a few lines of dialogue talking about a single aspect of their back stories, which is just more exposition and doesn’t give us much of a personality to grasp onto. There’s more gained from Breslin than Rottmayer, but it’s very marginal. The fact of the matter is that the script is very flat and unimaginative. If Stallone and Schwarzenegger were not cast in this movie, I don’t think I’d care to maintain any attention on Breslin or Rottmayer at all because the screenwriters do nothing to actually create any characters to care about.
However, even if the characters aren’t all that interesting or dimensional like Marion Cobretti or John Matrix, if the film they are placed into is exciting and entertaining enough with clever, sharp dialogue, it can still work and bring out the better qualities of the actor. Unfortunately, while Escape Plan maintains a solid pacing that doesn’t make it feel like a nearly two hour long movie, the action is very minimal. There are some prison riots, a few beat downs, and an attempted prison break or two, but in terms of straight up action like shootouts and fights with the villains, there’s very little until the climax. The film was a decent, easy watch, but never did anything ever come out and blow me away. There are even points in time where it seemed like it was edging towards something purely awesome, but then, it comes up quite short. So many things factor into that including some poorly structured and executed sequences.
To that point, the editing in many cases is very incoherent. The prime examples are that there are montages of sorts showing Breslin getting tortured, or simply showing his plans going into motion. These sequences are so sloppily edited that I couldn’t understand the narrative or linear flow through them at all. They’re a real mess of chronology that was quite confusing. Tying into that is the flat, bland direction that really never gives life to the proceedings of the plot. Intercutting between The Tomb and Breslin’s team throughout the second act just felt clunky and uneven. There’s little coherency or urgency put into what Breslin’s team is doing to give a crap about them. They ultimately don’t do crap until the last three minutes of the movie, anyway. And those characters are poorly conceived and flatly written to be either very obvious or simply not worth devoting your attention or interest in. Again, the actors aren’t bad, they just have crap to work with. Scenes are just strung together very haphazardly giving you a lack of context, narrative flow, or natural segues. While I’m certain that a better editor couldn’t have radically improved this movie, it at least would have made it far more coherent and smoother.
Now, the only real shining quality of this movie, which is also the one person who seems to be having a delightfully fun time, is Jim Caviezel. His villain of Warden Hobbs is very charismatic, smarmy, and particularly sadistic, but Caviezel avoids going over the top. He keeps it low key and fairly subtle while still delivering an especially enjoyable adversary. He definitely was putting his full commitment into this role, and he embraces it with plenty of imagination and zeal. I love the little nuances he adds to Hobbs such as being very meticulous in his appearance and manner. Caviezel is an actor I really like I lot from The Count of Monté Cristo to Outlander to Person of Interest, and seeing him as a villain here is wonderfully entertaining. He made the movie particularly enjoyable, and Vinnie Jones does quite a charismatic job as Hobbs’ right hand man Drake. There’s also an unexpected appearance by Sam Neill as the prison doctor. He also does a fine job with what little he is given to do. It’s clearly another case of having an actor I really like making the role any bit enjoyable or interesting for me.
Escape Plan attempts to have some semblances of plot twists or turns, but some are so obviously telegraphed or simply amount to nothing that you wonder what the point was. I believe to have a good movie you really have to start with a good script, and this movie didn’t have one. Even then, this film needed a far better, more talented director to maximize its potential. If you handed this project over to a highly experienced action director like Renny Harlin, John McTiernan, Walter Hill, or, if he were still alive, George P. Cosmatos, I think this could have had some potential for success. They would have molded and refined the story and given it the competency and life it needed. They also would have tailored the script to the strengths of it leads so that charisma and personality could have lived and thrived on screen. Alas, we are left with the movie we have, which is probably good for a rental, but not much better. There’s no need to see Escape Plan on the big screen, unfortunately.
Many know Kathryn Bigelow from her Academy Award winning and nominated films of recent years. However, her earlier work features some stunning films that showcase a brilliant visionary style, and no other movie reflects that better than Strange Days. Released in my favorite year in film, 1995, it bombed at the box office, but gained quite a lot of praise. Roger Ebert even gave it a four out of four stars, and it was nominated for several Saturn Awards including Best Science Fiction Film with Bigelow winning for Best Director. Time has since allowed for this film to gain a wider appreciation from genre fans, and I’ve wanted to share mine with you for quite a while now. Strange Days is essentially the Blade Runner of the 1990’s, but even Blade Runner doesn’t do to me what Strange Days does.
It’s the eve of the millennium in Los Angeles, December 31, 1999. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop turned street hustler who preys on human nature by dealing the drug of the future. A new technology, called “wire tripping,” allows for anyone to re-live actual life experiences tapping directly into the cerebral cortex for the ultimate escapist high. However, Lenny is soon tangled up in a deadly plot, alongside limousine driver and security specialist Mace (Angela Bassett), when a set of murderous and controversial wire trip recordings end up in his possession that could have radical implications upon the entire city. It’s an environment that will lead him deep into the danger zone when he falls into a maze filled with intrigue and betrayal, murder and conspiracy.
Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a time, and even after their marriage ended, they remained regular collaborators. Cameron was a producer on this film, co-screenwriter, and an uncredited editor. I can definitely see his creative influence at work. It’s that real depth of humanity on display with all of these colorful characters, real penetrating emotion, exciting science fiction ideas, and the exciting energy of storytelling which harkens back to The Terminator. His creative fingerprints are clearly here, and they are wrapped up in Bigelow’s razor sharp pacing, incredible direction, and mind blowing visuals.
The look of the movie definitely has that dystopian vibe with a lot of grit, smoke, neon, and seedy locales. Yet, it doesn’t look depressing, but instead, it’s exciting and intense. The cinematography is just simply stunning, and it will escape me to no end how Batman Forever got nominated at the Oscars for Best Cinematography this year while Strange Days was entirely snubbed as well as The Usual Suspects, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys. All of those are vastly superior looking and shot films on every level, and Strange Days is really in a league all its own from the signature James Cameron blue tinge style to Bigelow’s really dynamic visual edge that absorbs us fully into this dark, vibrant, mind-twisting reality. The camera work is amazingly dynamic, intriguing, and inspired. It’s a visual feast that really embraces a kinetic energy without ever sacrificing artistic integrity. If you took Blade Runner and hyper-charged it with adrenalin and a riveting edge of flash, you would get Strange Days.
The movie jacks you into a wire trip from the start to clearly convey the language of the experience. People are buying these recordings to experience the forbidden pleasures in life like armed robbery or sexual desires. It’s an extremely tempting thing that gives you all the rush and excitement without consequence, but it’s entirely illegal forcing Lenny to be the king of this underground business. Thus, he comes into the center of two related criminal plots. The first involves a pair of corrupt cops, portrayed by William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio, tracking down a damning wire trip recording that could erupt the entire city in violence and outrage. The second is someone who stalked, raped, and murdered a friend of Lenny’s, and now is focusing his sick and disturbing torment on Lenny himself. All of this melds together into a larger conspiracy that engulfs these characters into a powerful dramatic story that rips and tears at emotions with severe risks and consequences.
Now, I absolutely love Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero. He’s the real crux of this whole film energizing it with his slick charm and charisma. He’s a mesmerizing salesman selling fantasies with the sensation of pure, raw reality. Yet, he never comes across as sleazy. Fiennes makes Lenny very genuine in everything he does, and thus, he is the perfect unlikely hero with a yearning broken heart, a life of down and out black market seediness, and a real vulnerable quality to him. Ralph Fiennes is an incredible actor, and he makes this a very deeply human and emotionally vulnerable character that draws you completely into the film. Lenny Nero is not a man who views himself as a hero, but the frightening descent that he is caught up in forces him to take action, especially with his former love Faith, portrayed greatly by Juliette Lewis, at the center of it. Faith has fully fallen into the deep end of the sleaze as a rock singer hooked up with Michael Wincott’s wire trip addicted record label owner Philo Gant. Lenny desperately wants to win her back, or at least, pull her out of that deep end. As a side note, I really love the wardrobe of Lenny Nero. It’s very stylish and flashy with plenty of unique personality, much like Lenny himself.
Angela Bassett is absolutely bad ass here in a very gritty, powerful way. Mace is exceptionally tough not taking any crap from Lenny, who hustles and leeches favors off her when he’s down and out, and as a security specialist, she can back up every ounce of that attitude. Bassett exudes energy and strength in every frame, and intensifies every moment. I’ve always been impressed by Bassett’s mixture of tough exterior with a tender interior. She definitely brings that out in Mace with all the raw emotional power possible.
Now, you talk about Academy Award quality work, I honestly believe that both Bassett and Fiennes achieved that in this film. Had Strange Days not fallen under the radar, I believe it would have been heralded with that kind of reverence at the time. Both Bassett and Fiennes deliver stunning, deeply powerful performances, and the script fuses Lenny and Mace together in a very personal way born out of tragedy and heartbreak. Furthermore, the chemistry between Bassett and Fiennes is spectacular. They spark off amazingly whether it’s sharp wit and humor, vehement conviction, or deep emotional drama. They are an electrifying pair which forge a riveting gravitas around them, but also make it a fun ride with their great rhythm and heart.
This film is just filled with an array of exceptional acting talents putting forth their best. From Tom Sizemore to Juliette Lewis to William Fichtner to Vincent D’Onofrio to Michael Wincott, the supporting cast is bursting with charisma, awesomeness, and solidarity. Everyone is equally as compelling and vibrant creating a very electrifying ensemble. Under Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, everyone delivers a powerful and intensely memorable performance. Bigelow seems to very much favor Sizemore as he appeared in Blue Steel and Point Break with much smaller roles, but here, he’s given a very prominent role as Max, a friend of Lenny’s who is still on the police force that weaves himself tightly into this plot.
On top of having that mind-blowing, amazing cast, Bigelow delivers an exciting, riveting thriller. The mysteries are wonderfully interwoven with all the character dynamics, volatile social climate, and science fiction tech elements. There’s wickedly tight tension and heart-pounding excitement at every turn. The powder keg of Los Angeles is building towards an explosion, and the lethality of the situation only builds as forces converge. This is a movie that constantly pushes further and further along the razor’s edge of madness, suspense, and danger. Surely, there is action here handled with the riveting intensity that Bigelow demonstrated with Point Break, but saturated with larger doses of style and exhilaration, if that’s even imaginable. The two corrupt cops dousing Mace’s limo with gasoline and lighting it on fire forcing her to drive it into in the bay, and then, make a shotgun glass shattering escape to avoid drowning is superbly executed, as is everything here. This film is soaked in emotion and thrilling, edge of your seat suspense, but still finds those moments of pure entertainment to make it a greatly fun experience.
Surely, the odd aspect of the film is that it was released in 1995 and takes place in the year of 1999 featuring a very radical decline in society. It’s a very narrow jump into the future. However, I really do like that it uses that “end of the millennium” sort of craziness and chaos to enhance every aspect of the film. Strange Days also reflects a lot of early 90’s Los Angeles culture with the earthquakes, riots, and police brutality incidents, and so, it feels very encapsulating of what one could pessimistically feel the future of that Los Angeles could have been. People are packing assault rifles, cops are wearing tactical riot gear, and the entire city looks like it’s on the edge of all our war. This is the vibe and energy that Bigelow injects into the fiber of the film, and it really erupts in the film’s climax. Strange Days is more than just a cyberpunk thriller, it has real social commentary on the darkest parts of society with shocking consequences. The climax leaves me speechless. I really don’t have the words reserved to describe it. There is no easy road taken in this story, and nothing is handled lightly. This is a hard hitting, gritty, visceral film that holds nothing back on any level.
Fueling all of that is a stellar score by Graeme Revell and a very aggressive soundtrack of mid-1990s electronic, heavy metal, and edgy music. Every creative element of this movie is jacked into that kinetic, cyberpunk style that soars to magnificent heights. It’s a pure encapsulation of a stunning vision by Bigelow built on the foundation of a rock solid, stunningly intelligent screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks.
Strange Days is a brilliant, incredible movie with a lot of strong thematic material, wickedly amazing performances, and a spectacular visual style. This is one of the best and most original movies I have ever seen. My mind was blown all over again watching it for this review. Kathryn Bigelow would not be nominated for an Academy Award until 2010, but the evidence of her shockingly amazing talent was evident in 1995 with Strange Days. This is a film that deserves vastly more exposure, credit, and accolades than it has received. Surely, Point Break fulfills every action film adrenalin rush satisfaction for me, but this is the remarkable, awe-inspiring film experience. This is surely, without a doubt, the far superior film of the two, but both deliver on every promise and exceed expectations every step of the way. My recommendation is that you must see this movie no matter what!