I love a good old-fashioned, character driven action picture that plays out on a semi-realistic scale and doesn’t involve Spandex or Norse gods, but I guess I’m in the minority. No one is going to see Escape Plan, which is a shame, because it’s actually a very enjoyable movie. Oh sure, with foreign gross and VOD it’ll eke out a profit, but somehow I thought the long-awaited two-hander between the two most iconic action stars in film history would have garnered some attention. Twenty years ago, this movie would have been a monster. Right now, it’s an afterthought.
To be fair, I think the legendary team-up allure of Escape Plan was hindered by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wink-wink appearances in The Expendables 1 and 2, and Sylvester Stallone has escaped from prisons before in Lock Up, Tango & Cash, and, arguably, Daylight. But Escape Plan does have some fresh and fun elements and is made with skill and a touch of wit. It isn’t going to go down as a classic in either Sly or Arnie’s oeuvre, but it’s a solid addition. Let’s take a look at the script, warts and all.
MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW; DON’T READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN YET AND STILL PLAN ON SEEING
Let’s start with the title. The script was written by Miles Chapman (with a polish by Jason Keller under the nom de plume Arnell Jesko…wonder what that’s about…) as a spec called The Tomb, which refers to the unofficial name of the fortress from hell that protagonist Ray Breslin finds himself trapped in. (Ray Breslin is not to be confused with Ray Quick, the badass explosion guru Sly played in The Specialist…best/worst action hero name ever?). I like The Tomb as a title, but you can see why Summit changed it. The Tomb doesn’t truly sell what the movie is about, nor does it sell the genre. The Tomb could easily be a horror movie.
Titles are important, even more important than loglines. Shallow as it seems, titles can make or break a film. They have to express genre, tone and hint at the premise. Stallone knows firsthand how important titles are. He has confessed to having written in his pre-Rocky days a script entitled “Cry Full, Whisper Empty In The Same Breath.” Yikes. Before the logline, before the one-sheet, before the trailers and spots, the title is the first piece of marketing that an audience is exposed to. Escape Plan works. It succinctly conveys what the story is about and what the protagonist needs, i.e. the reason we are watching.
The premise: a security expert must escape from a unique prison of his own design. Now that’s a great premise. It’s full of dramatic irony, the stakes are huge…freedom and survivial…and it promises physical and intellectual action. As far as I can tell, it’s also unique. I’ve never read a jailbreak script with that hook before.
As for the script itself, there are a number of things that really work for me. For one thing, this is a script that understands the cinematic power of sequences. Sequences are becoming a lost art, almost to the point that I don’t see them anymore in most of the scripts that I read. Escape Plan’s opening sequence introduces Ray Breslin and defines him by showcasing the unique set of skills that he has, skills that he will desperately need once the plot kicks into gear. We meet Ray in a high-security cell. He is alone and pensive and is introduced as having “dark eyes. Gray with specks of black. The kind of eyes that promise a story but never deliver. Hard and inscrutable.” That sentence gives us a feeling for Ray, it expresses that he is a guy who is always thinking, always operating on multiple levels, always holding something back.
We then see him burn a page out of the Bible to make ash, which he uses to draw a diagram of the prison on the wall of his cell. This tells us that he’s smart and not particularly worried about being sacrilegious. Introducing your character as doing something unusual…something that showcases what makes them unique…is always a strong hook. The rest of the sequence is exciting and cinematic. It establishes that in addition to being a thinker, Ray is tough and can fight other inmates with brutal efficiency if he must. We see the broad strokes of how Ray escapes and gets picked up by his associates Abigail and Hush.
The next major scene introduces Ray’s business partner Lester Clark and shows Ray wearing a fancy tailored suit. That small detail tells us that Ray is just as comfortable in a high-powered business context as he is being an inmate. The scene also provides the perfect diegetic way for Ray to tell us how he escaped…how he does what he does…by having him forced to outline his plan to the prison warden so the warden knows how to fix his prison and make it truly escape-proof. Ray tells us his basic modus operandi: “Any break requires three things: knowing the layout, understanding the routine, and help from outside or in.” As Ray takes us through how he figured out what he needed to figure out, we realize that he spent months incarcerated.
The scene ends with the warden incredulously asking Ray what kind of man chooses to spend most of his life in prison. That’s exactly the question we the audience should be asking; that’s the hook of the character. The script does the work for us but not in a cloying or subtle way. It’s actively telling the story and controlling how we experience it. This is precisely what a good script does. The key is to do it so that an audience doesn’t realize that they are being led. If you’re too obvious, an audience is going to get irritated and feel like you’re insulting their intelligence.
And as a brief interjection, let’s talk about packaging. The Tomb/Escape Plan went through many drafts and was originally packaged for Bruce Willis and Antoine Fuqua, who worked together on Tears of the Sun and, as rumors have it, hated each other.
With certainty, Escape Plan is a much better fit for Stallone. Any person who chooses to spend most of their waking hours incarcerated clearly must have a very strong conviction for doing so, they must feel like they need to suffer some kind of penance to redeem themselves (this absolutely proves to be the case in the film).
That arc and persona is firmly in Stallone’s wheelhouse. He has always been at his most successful when playing haunted characters who must redeem themselves through extraordinary, punishing acts of physical perseverance. That notion is key to Rocky, Rambo, Cliffhanger, Daylight, Cop Land, and others. It is, in a nutshell, the key to Stallone’s enduring appeal: he plays warriors who perform Herculean feats but who are also relatable and down-to-earth, a fusion of classical mythology and the scrappy American underdog persona.
That’s one reason Stallone is a great choice to play Ray Breslin. The other reason is that Ray is a guy who spends a lot of time sitting alone in confined spaces and really, truly thinking. You need an actor who can project stillness and contemplation, someone who can express weight and emotion and inner workings without speaking. Stallone is adept at that, he has tremendous physical presence. I bring all of that up because it’s important when designing your characters to realize that an actor is going to have to bring them to life, and it’s always a good idea to write for someone, even if the odds are you’ll never get them, because it will help you imagine your character as a real cinematic creation and as a result the character will likely feel more real.
Back to the script. So after opening with a dynamic sequence that’s fun and exciting but also establishes Ray’s unique set of skills, the script provides an emotional hook by having the warden (who represents us, the audience, because the warden is being introduced to Ray’s world precisely as we are…we are one and the same) explicitly articulate the question “What kind of man would choose to spend most of his life in prison?” In the next scene, the script builds on this notion that Ray spends most of his time locked up by having him walk into his office and not only have him not recognize the receptionist but also have her not recognize him. Ray is never actually in the office because he’s always in prison somewhere on an assignment. He asks her if she is new. She replies that she has worked there for five months. That exchange tells us that, unlike in prison, in the real world Ray has no concept of time. He’s alone, isolated, a man living in a different world.
The next scene brings the inciting incident, the plot point that disrupts the protagonist’s Ordinary World and sets the core storyline in motion. In Ray’s case, it’s a gauntlet. Jessica Miller, a CIA lawyer, brings Ray a new assignment that offers both a considerable challenge and a considerable payday: test a clandestine prison built to contain “people no government wants on their books.” Immediately, the job smells fishy: Miller won’t tell Ray or Abigail or Hush the location of the prison. But Lester is keen to do the deal, and Ray accepts.
In the first act break, Ray is viciously abducted. The tracker implanted in his arm by Abigail and Hush is cut out, and Ray is injected with a tranquilizer. While en route to the Tomb in a helicopter, Ray pops in and out of consciousness but sees Drake, one of the guards, kill another inmate for getting out of line…”murder at 4,000 feet.” This scene is important because it convinces Ray that he is not in Kansas anymore; this is a prison that is operating illegally and that scares him. It scares him enough that immediately upon meeting Warden Hobbes, he shouts out the evacuation code he was given, but Hobbes refuses to pay him any attention. Ray is there for good, and he’ll never get out unless he does what he does best. But this won’t be an ordinary job.
In true Act II tradition and in accordance with Joseph Campbell’s/Chris Vogler’s Hero’s Journey, Ray is now in the Special World: in this prison, the guards wear faceless masks, seemingly making it impossible to distinguish them and clock their routines and habits. The cells are stacked vertically and are transparent, and a Panopticon-esque floating surveillance camera captures all. Escape demands privacy. In this prison, there is none. Even worse, Ray discovers that Hobbes built the prison based specifically around the treatise Ray wrote for the board of prisons on all of the weaknesses he has discovered over the years. Talk about killer obstacles.
Now, Ray enters the Tests, Allies, Enemies stage of the Hero’s Journey. Most significantly, he meets Schwarzenegger’s Emil Rottmayer, who has special clout in the prison and takes an immediate interest in Ray for reasons that become clear later on. Emil becomes Ray’s only ally. Fellow prisoner Javed tells Ray to make some friends because he is going to need them, and that is what Ray does with Emil. Javed is a Shapeshifter…someone who we’re not quite sure is an Ally or an Enemy, and whose status changes over the course of the narrative. Dr. Kyrie, played by Sam Neill, is also a Shapeshifter. He works for the enemy, but Ray senses he is someone with a fundamental sense of decency that, if he can just build a relationship with him, will come to his aid.
Ray survives his first test by taking down inmates that try to rush him. The Tests, Allies, Enemies stage is a broad Act II sequence that facilitates expanding the narrative universe of the story by thrusting the protagonist into new encounters, conflicts and relationships. Escape Plan firmly embraces that stage of the Hero’s Journey and embraces it well.
The midpoint of Act II involves Ray breaking out of the isolation area with Emil’s help so that he can descend to the bowels of the prison and find a way out. This is a fun and skillfully-written sequence that culminates in Ray discovering that the prison they are in is in fact aboard a giant ship anchored somewhere in the middle of the ocean; there is no way out. Escaping the Tomb is meaningless because there is nowhere to escape to. Now look, in theory this is a great midpoint. It effectively bisects Act II, and it brings Ray to an emotional low point.
My only problem with it is somewhat superficial: master action screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary already did that unique reveal more than fifteen years ago with their prison Erewhon in Face/Off, and the moment was even more devastating for their protagonist Sean Archer because his need to escape prison was more urgent than Ray’s; he had to save his family from his nemesis Castor Troy. It’s hard to get around the Face/Off comparison here, given that Face/Off was first developed as a vehicle for Stallone and Schwarzenegger and originally contained a much more futuristic prison than what made it to the screen.
Watching Escape Plan use the same reveal left me underwhelmed, making me wish that the script had provided something unique. Key to the promise of the premise is that the prison that Ray has to escape from is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and the fact that one of the key elements of the Tomb is cribbed from another hit movie (and an action classic no less) feels like a minor betrayal. After all, the point of the Tomb being on the water is to make it seem impossible for Ray to escape, but that same obstacle could have been planted by setting the Tomb on arctic tundra or desert wilderness or miles and miles underground.
Still, the sequence rebounds to an extent by having Ray battle raging water and flooding claustrophobic chambers. There’s a classicism to Ray battling those elements that further taps into old-school mythology in the tradition of quintessential action sagas. The best action movies blend specific settings, premises and obstacles (like Face/Off and Die Hard) with universal mythological tropes and subtextual elements.
After Ray returns to the isolation area and tells Emil what he found, he sinks into a depression, and this dovetails with Hobbes learning who Ray really is and deciding to break him. His motivation is connected to a subplot involving Emil. This sequence tests Ray psychologically as opposed to physically, a refreshing counterpoint. We see Ray lose his intellectual edge via sleep deprivation and an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. In perhaps the film’s key visual, we see Ray carve a childish drawing into a table with a faraway look on his face. It’s clearly something he has done many times and a picture he knows by heart. Emil prods Ray into confessing that he used to be a prosecutor until a man he sent to prison broke out and killed his wife and son.
That revelation answers the key thematic question asked in the opening about what kind of man chooses to spend most of his life in prison. Now we understand Ray’s drive: to make sure the prisons of the world are escape proof so that never again can a criminal escape prison and destroy someone’s life. This is a powerful emotional beat and I wish it had been explored deeper.
The script previously established that Ray has no life outside of escaping from prisons. There is some banter and romantic tension in his relationship with Abigail but their relationship seems destined to remain unrequited, and it’s clear that prison has become a crutch for Ray. Now we understand why. The script would have been more powerful if it had played up Ray’s guilt over being unable to save his family more, his sustained despondency at their loss, and I think a more interesting angle would have been to focus on Ray realizing that he wants to have a life and needs to escape from the Tomb.
As is, the only reason for Ray to escape the Tomb is because he doesn’t belong there, but that’s not a strong, driving emotional need. There is nothing waiting for him on the outside, and if the Tomb is the most advanced prison known to man, then really it is Ray’s Holy Grail. It is what he has been searching for since he began his one-man crusade: a prison that is flawless. And if he has finally found it, it’s not unreasonable to think that Ray would actually feel at peace and stop trying to escape, and then there could have been a really dramatic sequence in which Emil has to convince Ray to get back in the fight and choose life, or at least appeal to Ray’s lawyer roots and convince him that the Tomb is corrupt and needs to be destroyed, even if it is only abusing scum.
That’s something that the film botches that the script actually gets right. In the script, Rottmayer (who is named Church on the page) points out to Ray that Ray doesn’t venture into prisons in order to make them more effective at keeping inmates incarcerated, he does it because it allows him to forget all he has lost. The script also does the other thing that I couldn’t believe the film didn’t do and that is make Ray’s sleep deprivation/torture sequence much darker and more visceral. The script includes moments of Ray hallucinating his dead wife and son and really losing his grip on reality, and that’s exactly what I wanted to see. The sequence in the film gets us from point A to point B but doesn’t impact nearly as strongly as it should.
And similarly, I think it would have been more effective to, after revealing what happened to Ray’s family, to dramatize the obsessive lengths he went to in his quest to make prisons escape proof. I would have liked to have seen/learned how Ray immersed himself in engineering and chemistry and studied martial arts and street fighting so that he would be able to take care of himself on the inside and stay alive to fix more prisons. We love Batman because of the obsessive dedication he cultivated in his quest to become a crime fighter, and that same drive and dedication could have been seeded for Ray Breslin. We never question that Ray can fight bad guys because Stallone is playing him, but on a pure character level, there is no reason to believe that a former prosecutor would be an adept tough guy fighter unless we were specifically told/saw that he went out of his way to make himself formidable.
Similarly, though Hobbes is an intimidating and entertaining villain (largely because of Jim Caviezel’s steely charisma and understated ruthlessness), he could have been developed more interestingly, specifically in terms of his connection to Ray. Because just as Ray is a man who chooses to spend most of his life in a prison, so is Hobbes. He’s not going home to a nice house and a 70-inch flatscreen tv at the end of every day, he’s living in the Tomb. What kind of man does that? Did he build and assume command of the Tomb merely for money? Was it in the service of someone or something else? Does he have a military background? All of those things would have been explored in a more ambitious script. Face/Off went to great lengths to explore the dualities between hero and villain, showing that both had families that they cared about and people they neglected, and it made the conflict between Archer and Troy so personal and emotionally charged that every time they collided it was explosive and electrifying to watch.
Escape Plan doesn’t reach that pinnacle, which is a shame because the foundation was there, not only with Ray vs. Hobbes but also with Ray vs. Lester, Ray’s partner that we learn conspired to make him disappear in the Tomb in exchange for a big payday. There are two lines in the trailer for Escape Plan that I don’t remember hearing in the movie. Emil tells Ray “You have a choice. You can die in here, or you can get out and punish who put you here.” With absolute conviction Ray replies “I’m going to find out who and I’m going to find out why.” There’s a reason those lines are in the trailer. It’s exciting stuff. But the actual film doesn’t really engage that same excitement. It’s no mystery who put Ray in prison, and the fact that Lester’s motivation was merely a chunk of change is uninteresting. Sure, money is always a valid motivator, but it lacks dramatic weight; it’s generic, rather than personal.
Putting Ray in the Tomb under false pretenses and ensuring that he would never be released…even after citing his evacuation code and even after Hobbes discovered his true identity…is cruel and unusual punishment, to say the least. There should have been a more personal reason that Lester (or whoever the red herring could have been) did that to Ray. Given that Ray was a prosecutor for many years and has since embarrassed many prison officials and guards, there is a whole treasure trove of people that could have wanted to exact delicious revenge, and Ray should have had to delve through the mystery and really put his superior intelligence to the test to find the culprit.
Bringing out a threat from a character’s past is always compelling and offers built-in opportunity for backstory and character development. That would have been more engaging that going the Greedy Business Partner route. And certainly, if Lester was always going to be the (obvious) culprit and sell Ray out for money, then the relationship between Lester and Ray should have been built up much more in Act I to make that betrayal much more personal and dramatic. I think devoting part of Act III to Ray figuring out the mystery and getting even after escaping the Tomb would have been an interesting way to go that would have delivered on Ray’s smarts, rather than relegating him to standard action hero feats.
After Ray sinks to the bottom and comes back from the brink of despair…his Resurrection…the script really kicks into gear. The whole third act is a blast and all of the action really works. I love that Ray has to think on his feet and come up with a plan B to get himself off the ship (and I love the coincidence that it involves flushing himself up from below to the surface of the water because that’s the exact same climactic plan B Stallone uses to get out of the tunnel in Daylight). What Escape Plan does really well both as a script and as a film is provide a thinking man’s action movie that features a character with a uniquely tactical point of view.
Interestingly enough, the Escape Plan script ends with Ray and Emil escaping via helicopter but doesn’t have Ray kill Hobbes and get closure; he becomes a fugitive on the run and the script ends with him paying Lester (who is named Mark on the page) a little visit. Escape Plan the film improves one part of that ending and botches the other. I think it is much more satisfying that Ray kills Hobbes in a fun action movie moment, even if that is the safe, obvious approach; having Ray escape while Hobbes watches just feels anticlimactic. However, the script was right to have Ray personally go after Lester, whereas the film tosses that duty off to Hush, who is an incidental character that we care nothing about. That choice lacks punch, even if Hush is doing Ray’s bidding. A personal betrayal requires a personal response, not sending an emissary.
I also think a fair amount of the exposition in the script is sloppy, particularly surrounding Rottmayer (whose real name is revealed to be Victor Mannheim) and why he was in prison and why everyone was after him. We’re told some gibberish about Mannheim having designed something that will knock the corrupt world banking industry on its ass and being a Robin Hood-type figure, but frankly it all sounded like cheap nonsense to me. Also, if Ray Breslin was so obsessed with keeping criminals behind bars, he should have been equally obsessed with making sure that no inmate ever piggybacked off one of his escapes. The fact that he so actively enlists Emil and Javed in his plan without learning what they did (to make sure that they were wrongfully convicted/nice criminals and it would be okay for them to escape too) is troubling to me and screams character inconsistency.
Also, Hush is a useless character and the script never quite knows what to do with Abigail. She has some nice moments in Act I and then flounders for the rest of the script, always trying to look busy but never doing much of anything. Dr. Kyrie is also severely underwritten. We have no idea how a man who proves to be decent and noble came to be a doctor on an insane prison ship and work for privately funded mercenaries and thugs. Worse, after Kyrie risks his life to transmit coordinates to Emil’s helicopter friends, we never see him again. We have no idea how the massive riot and escape attempt affects him. What if he needed to be rescued and escape too? It’s distracting to cast a fascinating actor like Sam Neill and then barely use him.
And on a more superficial note that has nothing to do with the script, for the life of me I cannot understand why Emmett/Furla Films keeps casting 50 Cent in their movies. Seriously, the guy sucks as an actor and brings nothing to the table. Can we stop casting rappers and musicians in movies and use professional actors please? Is that really a hard concept to get behind?
But overall, Escape Plan is a clever script and an enjoyable movie. It just goes to show you that frequently in a good movie there are the seeds of a great movie. That’s why script development is so essential. It all comes down to what’s on the page.