By Preston Wilder
Looks like action-movie overload this week, with Skyscraper and Escape Plan 2: Hades leading the new releases – though in fact there’s a difference. Skyscraper is a mega-budget, big-studio behemoth, hitting its marks boringly and professionally. This, on the other hand, seems to have been made by a cadre of small operators (the final credits list over a dozen producers, co-producers and co-executive producers) on a fairly low budget if the special effects are any indication, seemingly shot and edited under the influence of some mind-expanding drug in order to disguise how nonsensical it is. It’s quite intriguing. It’s also terrible.
That said, it does have a couple of points in common with Skyscraper. First, the Chinese connection. China is increasingly the world’s biggest market for action – so the Dwayne Johnson movie is set in Hong Kong while this goes one better, essentially making Dwayne Johnson himself Chinese. A couple of Hollywood stars (Sylvester Stallone and Dave Bautista) do get top billing – but in fact our hero is Shu (played by Huang Xiaoming), a security specialist who ends up in jail and seeks to break out. The jail in question is ‘Hades’, a fully-automated nightmare run by an AI system called Galileo – which is another point in common with Skyscraper, viz. the high-tech trappings. Escape Plan 2 looks like science fiction, all neon lights, unearthly colours, sleek futuristic sets and glimpses of robot overlords; alas, its fuzzy plotting is all too human.
Speaking of humanity brings us to Sylvester Stallone, who turned 72 last week but still – somehow – opts to keep going. His is a very human frailty, an increasingly ravaged face with soulful eyes that remain capable of kindness, and even humour. His drawl is lazier than ever, making it unintentionally funny when Breslin (that’s Sly) has precisely 70 seconds to explain the plan to Shu before the machines catch up with them, and drawls out exposition with the clock counting down (faster, Breslin, talk faster!). Stallone also gets a martial-arts fight at the climax, though the silhouetted figures strongly suggest a stunt double; otherwise he stays in the office, or else appears on the soundtrack as a mentor figure spouting wise advice (“The one gift every prison gives you is time,” says his voice, and Shu frowns thoughtfully). Bautista’s presence is even more irrelevant, his scenes – mostly divorced from the rest of the movie – giving every indication that he came in for a couple of days, grabbed his paycheque, then went back to prepping for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy 3’.
The whole film seems to have been made with that kind of carelessness – or perhaps it’s not carelessness but deliberate strategy, viz. ‘The only way to keep people watching this is to make it as trippy and bewildering as possible’. The camera prowls needlessly, moving up a gear into frenetic Tourette’s mode during the action. Scenes seem to start in the middle, or escalate out of nowhere. The film keeps cross-cutting for no reason at all. Breslin’s showdown with the villain is interrupted by a lengthy fight scene for Shu – shifting to neon-red from neon-blue – then back to Breslin. It’s hard to know what’s going on. A twist that transforms the whole movie (“I run the prison!”) happens in blink-and-you-miss-it fashion, with minimal build-up. Pieces are introduced, then forgotten. At one point, we cut directly from two guys shaking hands to two other guys in the middle of a car chase. Did one thing cause the other, as implied by conventional film grammar? Nah, it’s just more exciting that way.
You can see the filmmakers’ problem. Escape Plan, from 2013, was a surprise hit, and surprisingly enjoyable – but its whole raison d’être was the first teaming, after so many years, of Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The sequel is Arnie-less, and even Stallone doesn’t get much to do; this, in other words, is a scam, attracting fans of the first movie without providing any of the attractions of the first movie. The only solution is to keep punters in a constant state of dazed stimulation; no wonder it feels like it was made by delirious cokeheads.
What actually happens in this movie? I’m not sure I can tell you. Breslin makes a big show of having discovered the “weakness” in Hades (every prison has a weakness, you see) but it’s not entirely clear how he got to that, nor is it clear what the shaven-headed Icelandic hackers with bags under their eyes – “We are Legion!” – add to the plan. You could probably figure it out, but why bother? The film seems designed to prevent such clarity, maybe because it’d then be obvious how empty it is.
Escape Plan 2 is a terrible movie, even if it’s also, paradoxically, less boring than a more professional movie like Skyscraper. Even the script seems aware of its basic inadequacy. “Hey Breslin,” quips Bautista’s non-character, seeing Sly back in the field after all those years as a desk-jockey. “Good to be back?”. Breslin smiles cryptically: “No, it’s bad to be back”. You said it, Sly.
DIRECTED BY Steven C. Miller
STARRING Sylvester Stallone, Dave Bautista, Huang Xiaoming
US/China 2018 96 mins.