I’m not sure why we’d ever be ranking the least likely trilogies of our cinematic era, but if the topic comes up, I’ll be sure to mention the ESCAPE PLAN saga. Here – let’s recap:
It all began with a legit theatrical release from the director of 1408. This was in 2013, after EXPENDABLES 1 and 2, in a period when Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were making solid old-man-action vehicles that just weren’t catching on (BULLET TO THE HEAD, SABOTAGE, THE LAST STAND). ESCAPE PLAN is only my third favorite of those, but it’s a solid sort-of throwback action movie, it was fun to see Sly and Arnold together in something less winky than an Expendables, and it was especially cool to see Schwarzenegger kind of being a character actor, being funny and a little crazy as a sidekick instead of the hero. Plus it had a weirdly overqualified cast of Jim Caviezel, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio and Amy Ryan (plus Vinnie Jones and 50 Cent).
In the U.S. it was a flop and got bad enough reviews that I started my review saying, “Well, shit. I hope ESCAPE PLAN isn’t the last gasp for straight ahead R-rated theatrically released movies from the ’80s action icons.” It turned out to be a hit overseas, but ESCAPE PLAN 2: HADES was still a surprise. By that time five years had passed, Stallone had earned an Oscar nomination for CREED and had a small role in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 – an odd time to do his first DTV sequel. Still, I’d liked director Steven C. Miller’s SILENT NIGHT, and they’d added the great Dave Bautista to make up for the lack of Arnold, so it seemed promising to me.
Sadly, part 2 is a dull low budget international production that starts off with generic young employees of Stallone’s character and then center around a bland new Chinese operative (Huang Xiaoming, IP MAN 2, THE GUILLOTINES). It’s an insultingly obvious attempt to hit the lowest possible amount of Stallone footage and voiceovers needed to reasonably still have him in the middle on the cover. And there’s not enough Bautista to make up for it.
Since part 3 was announced before part 2 even came out, I assumed it was more of the same, and completely wrote it off until some of you told me it was an improvement. And now I’ve gotten around to it. Thanks for the tip.
ESCAPE PLAN is no classic, and THE EXTRACTORS is no ESCAPE PLAN. It is, however, a pretty enjoyable cheapie in the old tradition of DTV sequels. It acts like we remember and care about these characters, which is kind of sweet. Ray Breslin (Stallone) has sent somebody to get some disc that ties his company to “my ex-partner’s black site prisons.” He’s referring to Lester (D’Onofrio), who I forgot in part 1 betrayed him, inspiring Hush (50 Cent, DEN OF THIEVES) to lock him in a shipping container. Permanently. (For a minute I thought they got D’Onofrio back just to do a death scene, but that’s footage from part 1.)
We needed to be reminded, because this one introduces Lester’s son Lester Jr. (Devon Sawa, CASPER) leading a team of highly trained killers in a complicated plan that involves getting revenge on Breslin but also kidnapping Daya Zhang (Malese Jow, BRATZ, THE SOCIAL NETWORK), daughter of Chinese Mogul Wu Zhang (Russell Wong, CHINA GIRL, CHINA WHITE, CHINA CRY: A TRUE STORY), in a bid to steal the technology Zhang provided for his father’s prisons.
When the shit goes down in an airplane hangar in Cincinatti, Daya is protected by her very serious new bodyguard Bao (Harry Shum Jr., STEP UP 2–3, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY). He figures out something is up when he notices a giant guy wearing coveralls that are way too short for him, and he kung fus them all, but when the guns come out he gets subdued, Daya gets snatched and everyone else dies. Neither he or the police can figure out what happened, but then he realizes they put a thumbdrive in his pocket that says “Ray Breslin.”
So for a minute it’s the story of this handsome young bodyguard duty-bound to rescue the heiress he failed to protect. But it switches to an office somewhere where a mysterious man arrives asking to see the boss, without an appointment, refusing to say his name, holding an umbrella when, the secretary notes, it is not raining.
Oh shit, I forgot! Motherfuckin Max Zhang is in this movie! He was a hunky, broody James Dean type when he starred in IP MAN 3, MASTER Z and THE BRINK. Here he looks more like his great henchman character from KILL ZONE 2: dainty and weird. He wears a tight suit with a vest and bow tie, hair slicked back, with pursed lips and makeup that make him look like an evil Pee-wee Herman in closeups. He sits in the waiting room and four intimidating figures approach one at a time from different directions and then he beats them up with his umbrella.
I thought he was a bad guy. He’s actually the guy Breslin was talking about, the guy he hired to get the incriminating disc. He’s also the guy Daya was talking about – Shen, her former bodyguard who dad fired for being in love with her. And like the guy in part 2 I think he might have more screen time than Stallone, but this time it’s okay, because, like I said, it’s motherfuckin Max Zhang.
Shen brings the disc to Breslin right before Bao brings the thumb drive, so he’s outraged when he hears about the kidnapping of his ex-client/girlfriend and they all team up to go rescue her. And then the bad guys kidnap Breslin’s employee/girlfriend Abigail (Jaime King, SIN CITY), making it even more personal.
That part is a bummer because he’d asked her “Sure you don’t want to sit this one out?” and she said “And let you have all the fun?” Having seen how good she was in Black Summer, the cool zombie show John Hyams made for Netflix, I was excited to see her be in on the action this time.
Breslin gets help from his old part 2 friend Trent DeRosa (Zhang’s MASTER Z opponent Bautista), who does get some good stuff to do but mostly after splitting off, saying “You know me, I work alone” and disappearing from the movie for long enough that we can only assume he went back to the hotel to take a nap or watch a football game or something.
Here’s a conundrum of this type of low budget filmmaking: on one hand, it’s shocking when they abruptly kill two major characters that I assumed would make it through the movie, and they’d be less likely to do that in a theatrical release. On the other hand, because it’s DTV I assume it was designed that way to make their shooting schedules shorter, which dampens the impact a little.
There is one sense that this is not as good as part 2: no goofy sci-fi prison shit, so the plot is more generic. Lester Jr. makes Abigail sit in an old electric chair, and he mentions building or owning prisons several times, but this is really just a hostage rescue movie. I don’t know why they didn’t figure out some way to fit in a little bit of Breslin’s escape expertise and photographic memory and stuff. Seemed like kind of the whole premise of the thing. But I’m happy for him that at the end he says he’s out of the prison business.
The whole narrative is clunky, but there are plenty of things I liked that got me through. Sawa is pretty good as the villain and made me laugh when he said, “I love that sound!” after a cell door clanked shut. The manly/brotherly mutual respect moments between Stallone and Bautista – like when Breslin tells DeRosa he’s done his part and it’s okay if he bails now, but DeRosa says he came here to help – are enjoyable. That’s the beauty of having two actors like this in one movie. It wouldn’t be the same if he was saying that to Rob Schneider.
DeRosa has a cool high tech gun using something called “Dragon’s Breath” that blasts gigantic flaming holes into dudes, and after using it he can’t help but crack a smile to himself.
I liked the henchman Frankie (Jeff Chase, THE RUNDOWN, TRANSPORTER 2, KILL THE IRISHMAN, also “Prisoner Beaten By Breslin” in ESCAPE PLAN, hmmm…), a big deep-voiced guy who tries to give good, reasonable advice to his younger boss, and has a pretty good fist fight with DeRosa. #1 Henchman of the 2010s Daniel Bernhardt (PARKER, JOHN WICK, LOGAN, ATOMIC BLONDE, BIRDS OF PREY) is also one of the bad guys. He gets less of a character to play, but he does have a showcase fight with Shen, so it’s BLOODSPORT 2-4 vs. KILL ZONE 2/IP MAN 3. And it’s a good fight by low budget American standards, though they blew it a little by building up to a big flying, flipping finishing move and then not keeping Zhang entirely in frame for it.
Zhang does okay with the English dialogue, but has a ways to go if he’s gonna do more American movies, which honestly he probly shouldn’t, because when it comes to filmmaking, production value and action quality even a lesser Chinese movie like THE BRINK blows this one out of the water and then back into the water until it drowns. But that’s okay. It was fun to see him slumming with these guys.
And maybe the best thing about the movie is the fight that happens when Breslin finally gets to Lester Jr. While watching I realized I’d seen Stallone talking about how proud he was that they just improvised and were really knocking each other around, which explains why it feels distinctly real. More importantly, he’s really acting during the scene, delivering an emotional monologue. It’s anti-climactic on a story level because he basically just walks through a tunnel for half the movie and then gets there and easily beats and murders the bad guy. But the scene has such a unique feel it makes the movie.
The end to Shen and Daya’s story feels a little more narratively satisfying, and by this point he’s got a cool jacket and his bangs hanging down, transformed from the weirdo he was at the beginning, so it seems to make more sense that she finds him so dreamy.
It’s the same writer as the other ones, Miles Chapman (ROAD HOUSE 2) along with the director, John Herzfeld (2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, 15 MINUTES, BOBBY Z, and REACH ME, that drama that had Stallone and a million other people in it). And, for what it’s worth, it seems to leave it open for further not-necessarily-escape-related plans.