Escape Plan is so dumb it's adorable, as any movie pitting Sylvester Stallone's grunt against Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent should be. Take away the weapons upgrades and facial creases and it might pass for something from their 20th century heydays.
Stallone plays Ray Breslin, the "resident Houdini" of a security group hired by the U.S. government to ensure maximum security prisons are maximally secure. Ray goes in as an inmate under false pretenses and comes out by whatever means the weakest links offer. He's MacGyver and Criss Angel in one meat-slab package.
Ray's latest assignment smells fishy. Someone is building privately funded prisons for high crimes and terrorism suspects, a new form of rendition and dodging habeas corpus. The location must remain unknown, so Ray's back-up team — including Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson as the "guy in the truck" action movies require — can't rush to help. Ray's hand-sanitizing freak boss (Vincent D'Onofrio) still says go ahead.
But it's a set-up. Ray's inside contact and safe words are useless, and the warden (Jim Caviezel) is one of those really bad guys with genteel hobbies, in this case mounting butterflies. The cells are Plexiglas cubicles, individually monitored by jackbooted guards sporting black death masks and cattle prods. Ray could use a friend.
Enter Schwarzenegger as Emil Rottmeyer, who notices Ray casing the joint and offers favors to know why. The favors always get Emil roughed up or tossed into solitary confinement, with a wall of Halogen lamps constantly blazing, so at least you get a tan. Then there's the prison's Muslim contingent that Emil taunts to brawl, led by the fearsome stereotype Javed (Faran Tahir).
The prison has one more security measure that shouldn't be spoiled, opening up the second half of Escape Plan to cascading malarkey requiring not one but two speeches to explain. Yet the movie forges ahead with such vigor that you don't mind so much.
Stallone's third-wind career isn't damaged while Schwarzenegger's comeback is certainly helped, playing burly second banana to a cagey ape, the George Kennedy for Cool Hand Sly. A subtitled sequence of crazy German talk proves language is indeed Ah-nuld's acting barrier, and a slo-mo extreme close-up squint before grabbing a gun too big for ordinary men to handle is purely movie star stuff.
Escape Plan also suggests a coming shift of cultural perceptions in action movies that often turn ethnic groups into easy bad guys. Javed winds up performing a valiant act met by the villain's most dastardly deed. That honor in 20th century action flicks was typically reserved for token ethnic sidekicks. Escape Plan hints that Muslim is the new black.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.