Monday, May 4, 2015

Escape Plan (2013)

As an Arab-American of Muslim upbringing, the last 14 years have made one thing painfully, ineluctably clear: although I identify as a pacifist and I’ve never even met a terrorist, my fellow countrymen have no qualms about sacrificing my liberty for their security.

I don’t even just mean hate crimes. At any time, any day, for any or no reason, I could suddenly get disappeared by authorities. The feds could immure and torture me in some black site in the heart of America, or I could face even worse treatment in Guantanamo Bay, or face even worse treatment in an unknown facility on the far side of the world, all with no evidence that I’d done anything wrong, at a site specifically chosen to deprive me of the use of a lawyer, with an arbitrary “enemy combatant” tag designed to make sure I can’t use the Sixth or Seventh Amendments. They could intentionally set a prohibitive fine; maybe they just wouldn’t tell anyone they had me in custody at all. They could convince my friends and loved ones that I’d done something to deserve this. (More of them would believe it than I want to admit.) I might never speak to my lawyer, family, or friends again. I might literally never see the light of day again. The staff at these prisons know they could torture, brutalize, starve, and possibly murder me with no provocation and no fear of punishment for decades, if ever. Whatever higher authorities would do to my torturers wouldn’t compare to what they’d do to anyone who’d try to stop it.

You might respond with blandishments about how, as a civic-minded film critic with a graduate-level education, I have nothing to worry about. But don’t waste your time or mine by claiming this has never happened to people who don’t deserve it. Only an idiot would believe that the government only punishes “bad people.”

So Escape Plan—a movie taking place inside “the Tomb,” a super-duper-max, ultra-secret, privately-owned, putatively “escape-proof” prison peopled with dissidents and Muslims—hits home for me.


The film centers on highly-paid escapologist Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) and his attempts to escape the Tomb with the help of curiously solicitous fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Breslin also faces the reptilian Warden Hobbes (James Caviezel) and his violent assistant (Vinnie Jones).


Escape Plan would feel like a cookie-cutter prison movie if not for the depiction of the Muslim inmates. Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir plays Javed, the most prominent of these inmates and an honorable, if hotheaded, victim of circumstance. Javed slowly rots in the Tomb while his acquaintances remain unable to liberate him and probably unaware of his whereabouts. We learn that he worked for an opium cartel (not humanitarian work, I know, but it doesn’t exactly equate to beheading civilians for ISIS), who betrayed him and had him thrown in the Tomb. Like Breslin, he sits in prison not for what he did, but because someone with a lot of money wants him there (and sometimes, it doesn’t take anything more than that).

Worst of all, the Tomb looks like a hotel designed by an overpaid Millennial.
We learn later that the real reason Breslin ended up in the Tomb had to do with breaking Rottmayer out, but Breslin could never have escaped if not for Javed. Although Javed clashes with two leads at first—particularly Rottmayer—he becomes useful later on because of this. When Breslin creates a makeshift sextant to find the Tomb’s geographical location, he entrusts it to Javed specifically because the authorities would never suspect Javed of all people of working with them. The film also implies that Javed convinced his Muslim friends off-screen to trust Breslin and Rottmayer once he realized they wanted to help. In this way, the film makes a point about the weakness of any oppressive regime. Oppressors try to pit people against each other, because oppression can’t survive when people band together. Breslin’s and Rottmayer’s alliance with the Muslims signal the turning point; their alliance turns the antagonists from invincible juggernauts to enemies with weak points.

Javed’s Islamic faith proves key to the characters escaping the Tomb. He convinces Warden Hobbes to allow him to pray in the open air, surreptitiously using Breslin’s sextant against the night sky. The film makes a point of showing Javed’s remorse at using something as sacred as prayer as a tool to escape the prison. But Javed does this because he realizes that organizing a jailbreak can do good that goes beyond his own self-interest.

Unfortunately, Javed never gets as much screen-time as Breslin or Rottmayer. But Javed alone goes a long way toward a positive depiction of Muslims. He proves an essential ally, loyal and morally upright. In his final scene, he makes a hero’s sacrifice to ensure Breslin’s and Rottmayer’s escape. I didn’t completely like this the first time I watched it, since it felt like the narrative discarded Javed for lack of a desire to flesh out a character arc for him. But in a way, the film already had a pretty good arc for Javed from the viewer’s perspective. The viewer goes from seeing him as a pissy minor antagonist to a trustworthy ally. Not bad for the quaternary character in a Stallone flick.

… or a guy who bears a disturbing resemblance to Clint Howard.
The other Muslims feel more like an undifferentiated mass than individual characters. Few get lines; only one other Muslim even gets named on-screen. But even as a group, the film shows the Muslims working to survive through solidarity and determination. Even when all hope seems lost, they continue to pray regularly and watch each other’s backs. The Muslims come to symbolize the unbreakable nature of the human spirit. Even though conditions at real-life offshore prisons drove 36 Muslims to attempt suicide by as early as 2005 (and it takes a lot to drive a single Muslim to suicide; Islam emphatically forbids it), people determined to maintain hope will maintain hope.

They also look surprisingly badass doing it.
All in all, the depiction of Muslims stands out to me as surprisingly positive (especially in a movie starring a former Republican governor and four prominent conservatives: Stallone, Caviezel, Jones, and 50 Cent). I appreciated that the film doesn’t imply that the Muslims necessarily committed the crimes imputed to them. At no point does the film blame Islam or imply that Islam caused these people to wind up here. But their role in the story still takes a backseat to the central narrative of Breslin’s escape. Still, Muslims get enough screen-time for Escape Plan to make its point: detaining people because of their religion or appearance never has and never will lead to a better society.

Like the best prison movies, Escape Plan echoes the famous Stanford prison experiment. The guards, rendered anonymous to the inmates by masks and uniforms that cover every square inch of their skin, act like stormtroopers. Rottmayer relates how they once murdered an inmate and left his body for three days, an anecdote that presages a certain real-life police killing. Sam Neill plays the reluctant prison doctor, who wants to help but fears the consequences (probably for good reason).

Sam Neill’s career spans four decades. Finally, he’s mastered the hesitant stare.

Escape Plan gets by on Breslin’s MacGyver-esque resourcefulness. We get plenty of action scenes, but they feel more than anything like an inferior version of the prison scenes in The Raid 2. Escape Plan also feels overlong at 115 minutes. It uses up its biggest plot twist halfway through; the remainder plods. Alex Heffes’ escalating score would work well on a shorter film, but it can only do so much to keep this one moving. The screenplay both telegraphs its plot twists and saves most for the end. This results in the movie putting a big chunk of its exposition in the worst place: the last few minutes.

Director Mikael Håfström doesn’t do a bad job, but his directing feels utilitarian. He does make use of a few interesting visual motifs, though, such as cubes and hot lights. He sells the latter with smart use of dissolves and close-ups.

Well, this certainly made me believe in the room’s heat.

As for the supporting cast, Amy Ryan—one of the best actresses working today—plays Breslin’s loyal friend and voice of reason Abigail. (Sound familiar?) 50 Cent plays Breslin’s understudy, Hush. His backstory makes an understated but important point about the capacity of convicted felons for redemption. Ursine-American character actor Vincent D’Onofrio plays Breslin’s neurotic CEO, Lester Clark. One can tell Clark has an agenda just by the guy playing him. Like Gary Sinise, D’Onofrio never seems to play a guy who doesn’t seem a little off.

You know that feeling when you find yourself at the office and you have no effect on anything but you have to pretend to look important?
This movie won’t stand among Stallone or Schwarzenegger’s iconic roles from the 80s. You won't see the iconic scenes of their heydays. No old generals visit their reclusive war buddies to talk them into coming out of retirement. Nobody singlehandedly invades a foreign island covered in machine guns and bandoliers with cigars dangling from their mouths. Nobody trains for weeks in a meat locker to defend America through boxing.

The finale still features Arnold firing a machine gun off the side of a choppa.
Because Schwarzenegger.

But most importantly, the two leads' star power gets asses in seats. Let’s hope that while people watch, they get this movie’s point: sacrificing liberty for security usually means losing too much of both.

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