I can’t lie; I won’t lie. I’m a big fan of both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Their action-packed exploits pretty much defined my childhood. I was legitimately afraid of an omnipotent A.I. launching nukes against Russia. I thought Omega Sector was the answer to terrorism. I guffawed at the thought of ticketed curse words. I’ve lifted weights to Gonna Fly Now.

But — maybe not in my rosy-cheeked youth, but certainly as an angry young man and later, mellowed adult — I’ve never been a huge fan of their particular brand of politics. They’ve never been shy about aligning themselves with the Republican Party, and I’m a bit of a lefty. But I can respect it. They don’t seem to be a part of the “intelligent design/prayer in schools” crowd, but more of the “let entrepreneurs do whatever they have to do to make a buck” philosophy.

Oddly, it’s their politics — or at least my perception of their politics — that plays the most interesting role in this weekend’s schlock-fest, Escape Plan. Its story, fitfully relevant for 2013 but crazy prescient for 1989, entails the adventures of Ray Breslin (Stallone), a security expert of sorts who specializes in breaking out of prisons. Along with business partner Vincent D’Onofrio (using an omnipresent Purell bottle and funny voice in place of “acting”), the federal government pays them to ensure prisons are as locked down as they’re supposed to be. Oh, and there’s a lovely lady assistant (Amy Ryan, who deserves better), and an urban-flavored gadgeteer who looks suspiciously like 50 Cent wearing glasses (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).

Offered a staggering amount of money from the CIA, Breslin is hired to test the limits of a private facility meant to “disappear” the world’s worst offenders — terrorists, bombers, murderers — more valuable alive than dead. Once inside, he’s faced with a monolith of glass and steel seemingly designed around everything he’s ever written. The warden (a smirking Jim Caviezel) has no knowledge of Breslin’s mission, and no intention of letting him escape.

Now, there’s some interesting stuff in Escape Plan. Most of the film is comprised of men having very serious conversations over stainless steel tables. Never before have I heard such passion about screws breaking apart and yes, that’s about as exciting as it sounds. Yet Sly absolutely refuses to accept he’s woefully miscast as the agile, mathematically minded puzzlemaster Breslin is supposed to be. And, once Schwarzenegger appears as an inmate with his own agenda, he devours the screen. He’s much more comfortable with his future as an aging character actor than Stallone’s struggling leading man.

Almost everything about it is an unironic throwback

The stars’ politics come into play with the sheer ruthlessness of “The Tomb”. The regular, government-run prisons — Stallone escapes from one in the beginning to help establish his methodology — are peopled with workaday professionals doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Financed by a private corporation, the type of organization I imagine Stallone and Schwarzenegger would champion, the Tomb staff callously utilizes torture (Waterboarding, even!), regular symbolic beatings, and high-tech hot boxes to keep their inmates in line. There’s no doubt they’re the bad guys and, after Arab prisoner Faran Tahir begins as a caricature and slowly transforms into a noble, almost heroic character, it’s clear Escape Plan has something to say.

But not much. Of course, there’s a lot more wrong with Escape Plan than right. Almost everything about it is an unironic throwback, with its fading stars hoping to grasp the glory of their younger days. Most of the painfully obtuse dialogue doesn’t quite fit together, seemingly written on the day by Hollywood titans with more power than the guy who wrote Road House 2: Last Call. And those serious scenes I mentioned above have very little connective tissue. There are plot holes you could drive a truck through, and Sam Neill shows up — inexplicably — to cash a paycheck.

Ultimately predictable, Escape Plan‘s incident-filled third act almost makes up for the first two, in that it gives fans like myself the action they should expect from Stallone and Schwarzenegger. But that doesn’t make it any less outright silly. Try as they might to explain it away, the Tomb still manages to break the laws of physics, and Arnold’s (surprisingly adept) comic relief occasionally lapses into self-parody. Disparate plot points are carelessly shoved together in a mad dash for the end.

4.0

  • Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s charming, weary chemistry
  • Pretty good action, once it kicks in
  • Tries too hard to be taken seriously
  • The story is hard to follow and not that interesting
  • Dragging stretches of clunky dialogue

While there’s certainly a nostalgic thrill in seeing the first real big screen team-up of Rambo and The Terminator (The Expendables cameos aside), Escape Plan is too weak to hold up the weight of their mighty histories. If it had been made in 1989, it would’ve been a classic for the ages. Too bad it broke out 25 years too late.

Escape Plan, an Atmosphere Entertainment, Emma/Furla Films production distributed by Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment, is 115 minutes long and rated R.