It's touching to watch Sylvester Stallone try to act. In his early days with Rocky, the guy had charm, an ability to reveal a light touch beneath his average-palooka demeanor. But in recent years, he's become as rigid as his face: a giant mass of muscles and mumbled words. His soft side all but absent now—and not so good at deadpan delivery—he barrels forward, still trying to be dramatic even though he never quite pulls it off. It's not that he's lazy or phoning in his performances—it's that his tough-guy persona has hardened to such a degree that no light or emotion can escape.
And yet, there's something cheering about seeing the guy still up there on the screen. His recent comeback with Rocky and Rambo sequels and the Expendables franchise has been the product of sheer will and craftiness. On some level, Stallone seems to understand that we still want to see him—and with The Expendables, other folks like him—and so it doesn't quite matter if the vehicle is a little broken-down. Actually, that's part of the appeal: If the movie's something of a retread, it only plays into our nostalgia for the way action movies used to be. Screw your CG effects and transforming robots—we'll take Sly.
His latest, Escape Plan, fits very much into that mold, boosted by a supporting performance from fellow aging icon Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's an unapologetic B-movie that mostly serves to remind the audience that men in their 60s can still kick ass and occasionally crack wise, even if their comic timing isn't for shit anymore. You watch Escape Plan because it's fun to see Stallone and Schwarzenegger palling around. Not fun enough, though.
Directed by Mikael Håfström (The Rite, 1408), the movie stars Stallone as Ray Breslin, who runs an elite company that investigates the vulnerability of maximum-security prisons. Ray goes undercover in the jails and tries to break out, combining a brilliant mind and a MacGyver-like ability to use items like a milk carton to assist in his escape. (In case you're wondering why the head of this firm, as opposed to one of his younger associates, would do this work, that ties into Ray's Meaningful Backstory that we'll eventually learn.)
Ray's latest assignment is his most difficult. He's asked to go inside a U.S. government prison at an undisclosed location that's holding the world's worst criminals. His team (including Amy Ryan, who has to flirt with this lug) is worried that it's too risky—especially since they won't have the usual safeguards in place to help him if he gets in trouble inside. But Ray's cockiness gets the best of him, and soon he finds himself at the mercy of Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), a sadistic warden who discovers Breslin's true identity and has been told by a mysterious partner to keep him in this futuristic prison forever.
To break out of this jail, which has been designed using Ray's own book on prison security as a guide, Ray needs the help of a fellow inmate, Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger). Escape Plan is a lot less jokey in that can-you-believe-how-old-we-are? way than the Expendables films are, but that's because it doesn't need to be: Just the sight of Stallone and Schwarzenegger hanging out together in a film in 2013 is inherently funny. Their impossibly pumped-up physiques, their utter confidence that they're still the cocks of the walk: Such shamelessness has its pleasures, and no doubt folks who came of age when these guys were Hollywood kings will find it personally reassuring that their heroes are still lumbering on.
But the problem comes when you have to construct a movie around these two, whose nostalgic value is more potent than their star presence. What's enjoyable about Escape Plan is that it's not a typical shoot-'em-up but, rather, an old-school prison flick in which the hard-ass characters have to work together to break out. But that emphasis on shrewdness requires actors who have a little cunning to them—God, Jason Statham would have been awesome in this movie—which Stallone and Schwarzenegger have in short supply at this late date. Like Stallone, Schwarzenegger has been funny and charismatic in the past, but now he's just too stiff. Both of these guys go through the movie as if they're hoping we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. And to a certain degree you will, if only because of the memories.
Escape Plan does have one terrific plot twist involving exactly where this prison is located, which creates a whole set of new problems for Ray, but most of the rest of the movie goes by the numbers. Caviezel plays a typically "sophisticated" psychopath. (He loves torturing his prisoners, but he also dresses sharply and collects butterflies, because duh.) The reveal of who's behind Ray's incarceration is really easy to predict. And as one of Ray's partners, 50 Cent is dependably terrible.
But some of the familiarity does work. Near the end of Escape Plan, Schwarzenegger gets his hands on a machine gun at last, and the movie almost swoons with happiness, shifting to slow-mo as he silently mows down tons of bad guys. Only here is the movie able to truly summon up the sort of primitive glee that these graying stars once managed to stir in viewers. At that moment, it seems like old times.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.