Sony // 2001 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // January 17th, 2006
He can escape from anything. Except his past.
He can escape from anything. Except this script.
Denis (Jonny Lee Miller, Aeon Flux, Afterglow) enjoys a perfect life. A devil-may-care pilot with a kamikaze streak, Denis lives with his beautiful, heavily pregnant wife Valerie (Paloma Baeza) in a sprawling seaside home, the opulence of which suggests that in jolly old England, devil-may-care pilots with kamikaze streaks are yanking down some serious coin.
Denis's idyllic existence is shattered the day thug Ricky Barnes (Andy Serkis, the actor behind Gollum and King Kong, seen here in his pre-CGI phase) and his crew break into the sprawling seaside home, and psychopathic Ricky busts a cap in the beautiful, heavily pregnant wife. The baby survives, but Valerie dies, spiraling Denis into a morass of grief and bloodlust-fueled despair. When Ricky swaps a guilty plea for a 20-year sentence, Denis vows to take matters into his own hands and execute the murderer.
Problem: How can Denis get his vengeful mitts on a man who's just been shipped off to Sullen Voe prison, the UK's modern-day version of Alcatraz? Answer: By faking his own suicide, then getting himself incarcerated in the same prison. Since Sullen Voe houses only the hardest core of the English underworld, Denis can't get sent there merely by bashing in the roof of a police cruiser with a sledge hammer -- his first attempt at high crime. So he becomes an "escapist," breaking out of one lockup after another, then conveniently allowing himself to get caught and kicked upstream to the next more severe level of penitentiary.
At last, the authorities get the message that the only way to keep this dangerous felon under wraps is to banish him to the forbidding Sullen Voe, where revenge is a dish usually served boiled...like most English food.
To cite a venerable film reviewing cliché, I really, really wanted to like this movie. Indeed, there was much about The Escapist that I did like. For one thing, the film features several solid performances. Jonny Lee Miller is convincingly distraught and obsessive as the grieving widower bent on revenge and willing to pay for it with his freedom. Miller shares a couple of powerfully emotional scenes with Jodhi May (The House of Mirth), who plays the sister-in-law who takes in Denis's infant daughter when he begins his grand tour of Her Majesty's penal system. Andy Serkis, known to most moviegoers more as a ghost in a motion capture suit than as a flesh-and-blood actor, delivers a suitably over-the-top turn as the half-mad career criminal Barnes.
Another positive is the crisp direction by Gillies Mackinnon (A Simple Twist Of Fate, Hideous Kinky). Mackinnon grabs our attention in the first few seconds of the film, and steadily builds the tension without resorting to American-style action film parlor tricks. He relies on the viewer's investment in Denis's harrowing quest and the skills of his fine cast to build the drama at a smooth yet brisk pace.
But ultimately, The Escapist is crippled by the logical traps left gaping in the script by Nick Perry, a novice screenwriter with a deft touch for structure and dialogue, but desperately in need of a partner who can mind the details. In an otherwise well-constructed thriller, the audience will suspend disbelief as long as they don't feel stupid for doing so. Perry had me smacking my forehead far too many times to get off scot-free.
Tough questions kept nagging at me. Isn't Denis's entire scheme a rather precarious house of cards? What if he never gets sent to Sullen Voe -- this can't be the only place in the UK where really bad guys wind up, can it? Suppose he gets shot and killed by the police during one of his endless escape attempts? If the correctional authorities recognize Denis is a flight risk (and they clearly do, because he's forced to wear a garish green-and-yellow jumpsuit so that he can be spotted easily), why don't they confine him to secure quarters, instead of giving him the free run of every prison he visits? (This movie does not inspire great confidence in the trustworthiness of British jails.)
And -- most annoyingly -- why don't the prison governors ever figure out who Denis is (throughout his incarcerative journey, Denis refuses to reveal his identity, so the correctional officers nickname him "John What"), especially since Ricky Barnes knows Denis is on his way long before he arrives at Sullen Voe? Has no one in the British criminal justice system ever heard of fingerprints? Denis is a licensed pilot and, presumably, a licensed driver as well -- his prints ought to be on file someplace. Or can just any random bloke fly a plane and drive a car on the sceptered isle?
Several other quibbles are left dangling in the wake of the film's anticlimactic ending. To find out what those are, you'll have to see The Escapist and be left thumping your skull against your coffee table, just as I did.
It's unfortunate that so much terrific acting and effective atmosphere suffers at the hands of a writer who forgot to cross all the T's and dot all the I's. There's an exceptional drama to be appreciated here, but it nearly disappears down the gopher holes in the script. The Escapist is worth seeing for what it offers, but you'll walk away mourning what might have been.
Sony serves up The Escapist in a barebones presentation, shrouded in some of the ugliest keep case art that has appeared in this courtroom in many a moon. Both Jonny Lee Miller and Andy Serkis deserve a letter of apology from whatever intern in the Sony marketing department Photoshopped their likenesses in so crude a fashion. The disc underneath the hideous wrapper proves serviceable, but offers little beyond the basics. The transfer is soft throughout and faded in spots, and shows the frequent flickering of source print defects. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack gives us everything we need and nothing we'd love, being focused almost exclusively in the front center of the soundscape. There isn't a ton of opportunity for huge, expansive surround moments here, but when those rare moments come, the soundtrack plows ahead in its same dull vein. The only extra content is an octet of trailers for disparate Sony titles, none of which are the feature under consideration.
For fans of The Lord Of The Rings and the latest King Kong remake, The Escapist provides a chance to watch Andy Serkis's spectacular acting when you can actually see him doing it. His role in this film isn't nearly as large as Jonny Lee Miller's, but Serkis grabs you by the throat whenever he's on camera, and his presence pervades the atmosphere even when he's out of the picture for long stretches. Whatever its failings, The Escapist is worth checking out just for an up-close view of this incredible character actor. He's far more than a mere gimmick performer.
A true fence-sitter, this. Dynamic performances and an intriguing storyline make The Escapist a tempting rental. Just be prepared for the frustration you'll experience with its underwhelming, half-baked screenplay.
The Judge was all ready to sentence this disc to six months at Sullen Voe
prison. but it appears to have escaped. Be on the lookout for a
suspicious-looking DVD wearing a ghastly disguise. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Bonus Trailers
* Interview With Director Gillies Mackinnon