MPI // 2008 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 26th, 2010
Five men. Four walls. One plan.
Prison break movies, like heist films, are the police procedurals of the underworld. The cleverly constructed ones give us a glimpse of skilled, ingenious professionals plying their trade. Over the decades, there have been a host of memorable jailbreak flicks of varying quality, including Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937), John Frankenheimer's Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), John Sturges' The Great Escape (1963), Franklin J. Schaffner's Papillon (1973), and Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz (1979). With such a long cinematic track record, is it possible to do something new and exciting with an escape movie? Writer-director Rupert Wyatt (Get the Picture) and actor Brian Cox (Zodiac) decided to give it a shot. The result was 2008's The Escapist.
After 14 years in a tough-as-nails British prison, Frank Perry (Cox) is resigned to spending the rest of his life behind bars until he receives a letter from his wife informing him that his now 21-year-old daughter, a heroin addict, suffered a nearly fatal overdose. Determined to see his daughter before something terrible happens to her, Perry assembles a team to plan and execute a jailbreak that will involve using the prison's drainage system to access an old subway that will lead them to the outside. Brodie (Liam Cunningham, Hunger) knows the layout of the subway, Viv Batista (Seu Jorge, City of God) is a dependable compatriot, and badass brawler Lenny Drake (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) is the only man who can acquire a certain piece of equipment essential to the plot. Meanwhile, Perry becomes concerned that the plan will come to the attention of Rizza (Damian Lewis, Band of Brothers), the most feared man in the prison, when Rizza's psychopathic brother (Steven Mackintosh, Underworld: Evolution) takes a shine to Perry's young cellmate Lacey (Dominic Cooper, The History Boys).
Rupert Wyatt drew his inspiration for The Escapist from a famous 19th century American short story that can't be named here without revealing the movie's central plot twist to anyone who has read the story. Suffice it to say that Wyatt's approach puts a fairly fresh spin on the jailbreak genre, at least in the movie's final act. The rest of the movie is an odd mix of naturalistic performances and dialogue, and macho absurdities that try to ride the kinetic stylistic coattails of British crime flick directors like Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), Matthew Vaughan (Layer Cake), and Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1. The movie's prison is utterly ridiculous, a kind of guy's dorm on steroids and bad will. Inmates wander around out of their cells with little supervision, shanking each other, holding bare-fisted boxing matches, and serenading fresh meat with lip-synced cabaret numbers in drag. Let's just say that the shenanigans are more than a little over-the-top, and definitely played for laughs.
These punctuations of absurdity contrast sharply with a plot built around the labyrinthine mechanics of the jailbreak and earnest performances by the actors. Brian Cox leads the troupe, his strong turn as Frank Perry somewhat reminiscent of Burt Lancaster's performance as Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz. Like Stroud, Perry is an older inmate who understands the prison's subculture and knows how to navigate the hierarchy among the prisoners. He stoically accepts his fate as a lifer and has carved out a means of surviving and perhaps even enjoying (if only slightly) his remaining days. Liam Cunningham is excellent as Brodie, another weary but bright inmate on the far side of middle age. Dominic Cooper is entirely believable as Perry's fresh meat inmate, a young guy Perry keeps at arm's length because he doesn't need the emotional trauma when the kid is inevitably victimized by the dark forces at play inside the prison. Damian Lewis' screen time is brief, but he makes the most of it as the clean-cut, disciplined, and genuinely menacing gangster whom all of the other inmates fear. His presence looms like a shadow over the proceedings, even when he's not onscreen. Joseph Fiennes and Steven Mackintosh chew scenery in a pair of performances that better fit the cartoonish aspects of the picture. Fiennes plays a reticent badass who wears a sleeveless hoodie designed to drape his eyes in shadows while showing off his sinewy biceps. Fiennes is all snarl and tough guy dialogue, but he certainly seems to have enjoyed the role. Mackintosh plays Damian Lewis' brother, a reptilian psychopath who loves to sexually victimize young, inexperienced inmates while hiding behind his brothers' formidable clout. The actor makes hay with the role, delivering a performance full of wide-eyed hissing, whispered threats, and general creepiness. It's the sort of character specifically designed to make the audience want to see him get his comeuppance and Mackintosh plays the part with gleeful fervor.
It's too bad that the performances are better than the material. Not only do the cartoonish elements feel out of place, but Wyatt doesn't quite pull off his third act plot twist. The idea is solid and definitely unconventional for a jailbreak flick, but the execution is slightly heavy-handed. Like David Twohy's The Perfect Getaway, the last third of The Escapist lurches backward in time, recapping events we've already seen but shedding new light on them. Wyatt handles the conceit with more elegance and a stronger sense of visual poetry than Twohy managed, but still errs on the side of showing us too much, so that the sequences feel patronizing, as though Wyatt wasn't confident we'd catch the gist of his simple but otherwise effective twist. Despite its problems, The Escapist isn't a failure. It is 102 minutes of relatively intelligent, well-acted, but disposable entertainment.
MPI brings The Escapist to DVD in a bland but decent enough transfer that frames the picture at 1.85:1, enhanced for widescreen displays. The Dolby 5.1 surround audio mix is reasonably vibrant. The only extras are an electronic press kit-style making-of featurette, a handful of deleted scenes, and a trailer for the feature.
The Escapist gets by on a plot that is mostly by the numbers, a smart but poorly executed surprise ending, and fine performances by Brian Cox and the rest of the cast. I can't recommend adding it to your collection, but it's worthy of a place in your Netflix queue.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes