Sylvester Stallone is that rare Hollywood animal who has kicked off not one or two but three successful film franchises.
Stallone is more than an actor for hire in each. He has a sizable hand behind the scenes, too. That makes his involvement all the more impressive.
John Rambo and Rocky Balboa are two characters that helped cement Stallone as one of the signature Hollywood creators in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Those characters are so beloved, and so intertwined in our pop culture consciousness, that both are still going strong today.
It’s hard to go through a week without hearing someone reference Rocky, Rambo or both. Hell, there’s even a statue commemorating Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia. Don’t let anyone tell you Americans don’t care about art!
On top of those two immortal franchises, Stallone also spawned a series from his pure love for the action genre. While Stallone’s Barney Ross character in three “Expendables” films isn’t as quick to the tongue as Rocky or Rambo, it’s still damn impressive that a star in his 60s created yet another successful action franchise.
There is one Stallone franchise, though, that lives in the shadow of Stallone’s iconic creations.
Stallone’s fourth franchise character is Ray Breslin, first introduced in 2013’s “Escape Plan.”
While “Escape Plan” didn’t blow anybody’s hair back, it was notable to action fans for one cool fact — it was the first major team-up between once-rivals Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s certainly one of the better Stallone vehicles outside of his known franchise material. The flick gives fun moments to not only Stallone, but supporting cast members like Jim Caviezel and Vinnie Jones.
Schwarzenegger even gets a chance to rant in German, so there’s that.
“Escape Plan” starts off with a clever premise — Ray Breslin is a security expert hired by prisons to test their impenetrability. Breslin is thrown into prisons as just another inmate with guards being none the wiser.
It’s then Breslin’s job to try and break out of the structures, something he is incredibly good at doing.
Breslin runs into a major fork in the road when he takes on a mysterious job and ends up in a prison like no other.
His contact inside doesn’t exist, and the warden (Caviezel) informs him that the structure was built based off of Breslin’s own book about prison weaknesses.
When the “Escape Plan’s” credits rolled few fans expected sequels. The film’s modest $25 million stateside haul underlined that point. Strong international box office numbers, however, guaranteed more of Breslin and his prison-breaking antics.
When “Escape Plan 2” was announced, “Escape Plan 3” was said to be coming right after. There was so much faith in the franchise that we were getting not one, but two sequels. Say what you will about the “Escape Plan” saga. Can you recall anything like that ever happening with Stallone’s other franchises?
Unfortunately, when the trailer for “Escape Plan 2: Hades” was released, it didn’t inspire much confidence. Despite sporting the same writer as the first film (Miles Chapman), the movie looked far more like science-fiction than gritty prison drama.
When the film dropped, it was the sort of cash-grab flick that fans had likely convinced themselves Stallone was above making at this point in his career. With a diminished role in the movie, curious fans were left with the sort of wooden acting and shaky cam, quick-cut action commonplace among VOD action movies.
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“Escape Plan 2: Hades” doesn’t make a lick of sense. The high-tech prison at the center of the movie never has any sort of logic that holds up. It’s also confusing why the producers choose to use such a special-effects-heavy story when clearly the budget was lowered from the first film.
Genuinely interesting actors like Titus Welliver (as the prison’s warden) and Wes Chatham (another protege of Breslin’s with an axe to grind) are given nothing to do. The action sequences are shot so you’re never quite sure what’s happening.
The film is also cut in a way where few of the plot points make sense. Dave Bautista is introduced into the story with very little explanation.
Actress Jamie King replaces Amy Ryan as Breslin’s business partner/love interest, but this is never obvious in the movie.
Stallone clearly only worked on the film for a handful of days. The majority of his role is via voice over acting as his protege’s memories or intuition or some such nonsense.
The are very few pleasures to be had with “Escape Plan 2.” There’s two sort-of exciting action scenes and both involve Stallone. What’s clear about the movie for any fan of Stallone’s career is that the actor/writer took a more hands-off approach.
Even Stallone cops to the film’s failures.
“‘Escape Plan 2’ was beyond awful,” Stallone wrote on Instagram in response to a fan expressing disappointment with the film.
He later expanded on that frustration while promoting the third film in the trilogy.
“‘Escape Plan 2’ was truly the most horribly produced film I have ever had the misfortune to be in,” he wrote. That statement is pretty extreme when you consider it comes from the man who has starred in cinematic atrocities like “Judge Dredd” and “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.”
FAST FACT: “Escape Plan: The Extractors” was filmed at the same prison partly used in films like “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“Escape Plan: The Extractors,” available now, feels like a course correction of sorts for the franchise.
The film almost ignores the second film entirely and is a direct sequel to the first. Stallone hired close friend and longtime collaborator John Herzfeld to take on directing duties and help out with the script.
Devon Sawa joins the film as the son of Lester Clark (played in the original by Vincent D’Onofrio), Breslin’s ex-business partner who was left to die in a shipping container at the end of the first film after betraying our protagonist.
Clark’s son is seeking revenge for his father’s death.
Though it’s also held back in certain ways by a limited budget, “Escape Plan: The Extractors” goes for it in the same way that the first movie did. It also injects a brutality into the franchise that makes the flick stand on its own.
Shot in only 17 days — many non-action films are rushing to finish principal photography in 30 days – “Escape Plan 3” is filled with improvisation and the sort of practical stunt work that is quickly being retired from big Hollywood blockbusters.
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Stallone detailed on Instagram how one major fight was done completely in the moment, which is again mind-blowing because any action scene captured on camera is typically rehearsed over and over and over until it’s a dance.
“I wanted this battle be as realistic as possible. I showed up on the site for the big final fight scene that takes place in a very very old cell that is 9‘ x 7 … they had spent all this time choreographing this Martial arts type of combat. I said forget it. Why don’t we go in there and just let it rip. Like a real fight!!!! . Nobody does this anymore … NO CUTS! ONE LONG TAKE — No choreography, so you don’t know what’s coming until it hits you.”
The actor continued:
“I asked the other actor who has a lot of guts, Devon Sawa , If he was game? I said it’s gonna hurt and he replayed “ bring it “ . So what you see us a portion of the brawl that is completely non – choreographed , spontaneous , again, with no cuts , And no idea , and what punches were coming! The other actor Devon, plays the killer who has accused me of murdering his father which is not true!”
Stallone said it was the first fight scene in his career that was not choreographed. That’s refreshing to hear since it means even at the tender age of 72, the “Cop Land” star is still finding new ways to challenge himself as an artist — even if it means taking a few hits from someone half his age.
The improvisation went beyond the fights, too. Sawa revealed on Twitter that one fun line was made up by him on the spot.
A chilling sound only a madman would love. Watch Devon Sawa in #EscapePlanTheExtractors on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital 7/2. https://t.co/WTPdw42jiK pic.twitter.com/97MxqQlfoG
— Escape Plan: The Extractors (@EscapePlanMovie) June 25, 2019
Improvised line not only made the cut, but the promotional campaign. https://t.co/rDWlKVVrWC
— devon sawa (@DevonESawa) June 25, 2019
After a series of jail cells can heard locking, Sawa gives a psychopathic smile to a henchman and says, “I love that sound.” It’s a moment that would no doubt make an actor like D’Onofrio proud.
“Escape Plan: The Extractors” is far better than it deserves to be. While Stallone, Herzfeld, Sawa and everyone in between could have easily phoned it in, they really give it their all here.
And it shows.
There are three action scenes in this 77-minute movie that genuinely feel like they could have been placed in a “John Wick” movie. One is the improvised fight Stallone bragged about on Instagram. A second happens early on in the flick, and the third involves Bautista making his way down a prison hallway with a gun almost as big as he is.
Not to oversell the third movie in a VOD franchise, but “Extractors” feels like the sort of balls-to-the-wall, bare knuckle action flick a 20-something filmmaker might make to get his name out there. It has an energy to it that refuses to let up.
And not to oversell the flick again, but it has a secret weapon and his name is Devon Sawa. While he’s been steadily working since 2000’s “Final Destination,” this certainly feels like a comeback role for him. He holds his own against Stallone and he owns the screen in the ways all the best cinematic villains do.
He’s the Joker, the Killmonger, the Hans Gruber that every great action movie needs. This is not to say that “Extractors” is a perfect flick.
There is a whole plot about blackmailing a billionaire that never quite makes sense, and the overly complicated thread adds up to little more than a distraction in the revenge-fueled story. Luckily, at about the halfway point, Herzfeld and company drop most of the complications and simply present an easy-to-digest, brutal action plot — guys need to break into a prison, kill the bad guys and save their loved ones.
Other than that, the film has potential that maybe a bigger budget or more time would have filled. 50 Cent feels wasted in his role as Hush, the computer hacker from the first two movies, Jamie King isn’t allowed to make much of an impact, and she should probably just be playing a role separate from Ryan’s. Sawa also definitely deserves more screen time.
Despite its highs and lows through three movies, the “Escape Plan” franchise is something to admire in today’s day and age. These are the sort of movies that were made in the ‘80s and ‘90s that tried to entertain without agenda.
Today’s franchises are often plagued by obvious symbolism and political points, an over-reliance on novelty and special effects that are doomed to be outdated within a decade.
The “Escape Plan” movies feel like they are implanted from another time. They are the sort of gritty blockbusters Stallone and Schwarzenegger pumped out on the regular at the height of their careers. They are meant as pure popcorn entertainment, and when they do attempt to rise beyond that, they do so in surprising and subtle ways instead of with the cinematic meat cleavers that many screenwriters seem to like using today.
He’s not Rocky or Rambo, but Ray Breslin is still a solid Stallone creation. As is pointed out in the first movie, he’s a man who has actually chosen to spend a good portion of his life behind bars.
This is a great theme and layer to the character that really could provide interesting material for future movies. If we’re on a fifth Rambo movie and discussing a ninth Rocky movie then why not some more rounds for Breslin?
And if there are no more roads for this story then at least Stallone has left us with a trilogy that is deeply interesting and unique in both its successes and failures. If it ends now, it exists on a high note catering to the tastes of moviegoers like myself who are left disappointed more times than not by whatever Disney remake/Marvel sequel/big budget reboot is being pushed into theaters.
Zachary Leeman is the author of “Nigh” and an editor/writer with Bizpac Review.