Monday, July 2, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: ESCAPE PLAN 2: HADES (2018); CHINA SALESMAN (2018); and THE ESCAPE OF PRISONER 614 (2018)

(US/China/UK - 2018)

2013's ESCAPE PLAN was an enjoyable prison-break pairing of aging '80s action icons Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger that failed to generate much interest and flopped at the box office. Like some other underperformers, it proved to be a huge hit in China, which explains the existence of the needlessly convoluted, partially Chinese-financed ESCAPE PLAN 2: HADES, the first of two sequels shot back-to-back for DTV release in the States and a theatrical rollout in Asia. Schwarzenegger is out and top-billed Stallone is back, albeit in largely a supporting role, but the nominal lead is popular Chinese actor and singer Huang Xiaoming as Shu, the newest member of security expert Ray Breslin's (Stallone) Atlanta-based team. After a botched extraction from a Chechen prison results in the death of a hostage, Breslin fires one of his men, Kimbral (Wes Chatham), for deviating from their set routine. A year later, Shu is in Thailand visiting his tech mogul cousin Yusheng Ma (Chen Tang) when both are abducted and thrown into Hades, a super high-tech prison nine stories underground that holds regular fighting showdowns (that's original) in "The Zoo," where the victor earns time in "The Sanctuary," a room with virtual reality imagery that provides a brief respite for the prisoners. Jake (Jesse Metcalfe), another Breslin staffer, goes rogue and tries to investigate Shu's disappearance on his own only to end up in Hades himself, where he and Shu encounter an incarcerated Kimbral. It then becomes clear--to them but perhaps not to the viewer--that it's all a set-up against Breslin as revenge for him escaping from "The Tomb" in the previous film, which means one thing: Breslin must do what he does best and get himself thrown into Hades, essentially breaking in to find a way to get his guys out.

Though Stallone is playing the same character, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson is back as his right-hand man Hush, and co-writer Miles Chapman also returns, ESCAPE PLAN 2: HADES seems like it takes place in a different world than its predecessor. It's got such heavy futuristic sci-fi leanings that it could almost pass as a FORTRESS or CUBE reboot, and at the rate this franchise is going, ESCAPE PLAN 3 could very well be set in space. Director Steven C. Miller, who's helmed several chapters of Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series, churned this out in an undistinguished fashion, with constantly jittery cinematography and motion-sickness inducing shaky-cam in the action scenes, and some of the most unacceptably shoddy CGI in recent memory (a couple of iPhone-app-level explosions and Stallone administering a CGI neckbreak that's just atrocious). Huang is a dull hero, though to his credit, he's not acting in his first language. Half-asleep and sporting a terrible rug, Stallone is largely relegated to the sideline, almost-but-not-quite-Willis-style (Breslin actually leaves his office), until he ends up in Hades about an hour in and more or less becomes the focus. Dave Bautista has little to do but manages a couple of laughs as a fixer colleague of Breslin's who gathers intel for their search for Shu, strong-arming assistance from a hacker played by Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz (and speaking of pointless cameos, Atlanta Falcons RB Devonta Freeman can briefly be glimpsed as a Hades inmate). ESCAPE PLAN 2: HADES is lazy, cheap-looking, and laughably cliched, right down to its (ostensibly) chief villain, evil warden "The Zookeeper," played by Titus Welliver. A reliable ringer when it comes to character roles, a glowering Welliver looks like he's in physical pain being forced to gravely intone lines like "I know everything about my animals...I'm the Zookeeper," while one inmate helpfully waxes poetic with "That's why they call it The Zoo...we're all animals here...survival of the fittest." Between these hastily-shot sequels that were only made to satisfy the demand of the Asian market and the apparently ill-advised direction CREED 2 seems to be headed from the sound of things (why is Ivan Drago back?), it looks like Stallone is completely squandering the serious cred he got from that CREED Oscar nomination. Had he won it like he should have, we might've been spared ESCAPE PLAN 2: HADES. Or at least Miller could've rewritten the script to keep Breslin completely confined to his office so Bruce Willis could've stepped in and taken over the role. (R, 93 mins)

(China - 2017; US release 2018)

It's pretty clear from the moment CHINA SALESMAN begins that it's gonna be something special. There's an opening certification stating that it's commissioned by the Chinese government, one of the 16 (!) production companies is represented by a typo ("Gloden" God Video & Culture), there's 72 (!!) credited producers, and former action star and current sleeper agent Steven Seagal is listed as "Steve Segal" in the opening credits. A $20 million epic that tanked in China a year ago, CHINA SALESMAN was picked up for the US by Cleopatra Entertainment, the company that gave us the Kazakh shitshow DIAMOND CARTEL, and prominently features Seagal and Mike Tyson in its advertising, making it a veritable Who's Who of #MeToo. But, like ESCAPE PLAN 2, the Hollywood guest stars have relatively minor roles, with the focus on Li Dongxue as Yan Jian, an ambitious representative from Chinese tech company DH Telecom, who's in Uganda trying to negotiate a lucrative contract to establish 3G wireless communication at newly-constructed cell phone towers in the civil war-torn country. Pretty scintillating stuff, with a lot of screen time devoted to captivating meetings and boardroom backstabbing as Yan Jian and his associate Ruan Ling (Li Ai) are in constant danger of being railroaded by duplicitous Eurotrash shitbag Michael Duchamp (Clovis Fouin), who's also trying to close the deal for his company and seems to be on the good side of Susanna (Janicke Askevold), the head of the independent committee charged with deciding the victor in the 3G bidding war. But Susanna eventually sides with Yan Jian, who's heroically depicted as the only person who can save Uganda, right down to a patently ridiculous scene where he risks life and limb to plant a Chinese flag, which he and Susanna then passionately wave as they drive past cheering Ugandan soldiers.

Tyson, who relooped his dialogue but still can't match his own lip movements, plays Kabbah, a religious mercenary from an unnamed African country who ends up as a flunky for Duchamp. Seagal has little more than a cameo as Lauder, an expat bar owner ("Of all the gin joints in the world...") and arms dealer on the side who, for some reason, has a framed action still of Steven Seagal on his desk. CHINA SALESMAN shows its only signs of life in the first ten minutes during an out-of-nowhere bar brawl between Tyson and Seagal's double, which starts when Kabbah refuses a drink for religious reasons, prompting Lauder to have one of his goons piss in a mug and try to force him to drink it. There's an admittedly amusing moment when Seagal('s double) flicks Tyson's ear in a way that has to be an Evander Holyfield dig, but what perfectly caps the scene is an enraged Kabbah shouting "You serve me pee...YOU DIE!" Beyond that, CHINA SALESMAN is an oppressively overlong bore, filled with the kind of crummy greenscreen and CGI that only Chinese visual effects teams can pull off, and populated by actors so stiff and uncomfortable with English (even Tyson) that Seagal ends up looking like a world-class orator by default. (Unrated, 111 mins)

(US - 2018)

It's rare that you encounter a movie that has no reason to exist. One of the most self-defeating films of 2018, THE ESCAPE OF PRISONER 614 initially appears to be a B-grade, Redbox-ready take on HELL OR HIGH WATER by way of the Coen Bros., with nitwit sheriff's deputies Jim Doyle (FREAKS AND GEEKS' Martin Starr) and Thurman Hayford (Jake McDorman of CBS' LIMITLESS spinoff) idling their days away in the sleepy and sparsely-populated rural town of Shandaken in upstate New York in the late 1960s. They have little to do but play cops & robbers in the woods and get on-the-house pie at the local diner, and without a single arrest in the last year, the stern, no-nonsense sheriff (Ron Perlman) comes down from Albany to fire them. But they find a way to regain their jobs when they get word of an escaped convict known only as Prisoner 614 (George Sample III) on foot and headed their way. They hike deep into the woods--idiotically wasting all their bullets in a pissing contest where neither of them can shoot a beer can at ten paces--finding 614 and taking him into custody. 614 is wanted for killing a deputy from a neighboring county, but insists he's innocent and that the deputy died of a heart attack, and as time goes on, Jim and Thurman believe him. Once they get back to Shandaken, they can't convince the sheriff, even with a sworn statement from a witness that the obese deputy had a heart attack while 614 was simply standing near him. Their actions get Jim and Thurman rehired, but then they risk it all by going against the sheriff and aiding and abetting a fugitive to get 614 to freedom in Canada.

It's hard telling who this movie is even for. Nothing sums up its utter futility like having a character unknowingly guzzle Ipecac in a set-up for what must be a showstopping comedic projectile vomiting set piece, but then it has that very character drop dead of a heart attack before the Ipecac kicks in. Is that like making a porno where two people are about to fuck and then just watch TV? THE ESCAPE OF PRISONER 614 subverts your expectations to the point where the entire movie just feels like one long dick move. Is it a comedy without laughs or a thriller without suspense? And is it that way by design? Starr and McDornan seem like they'll be playing affable goofballs but then just seem to wander aimlessly through the movie with no real character arcs or progression, while Sample has even less to do, even when writer/director Zach Golden throws in a cursory mention of the charges against him being racially-motivated. Perlman pops up here and there to slow burn at the deputies and basically be "Ron Perlman," but Golden doesn't seem to know what kind of movie he was trying to make, so he plays it too safe and makes what amounts to a movie about nothing that goes nowhere. The period detail is atrocious, and you can only gauge that it's 1967 or thereabouts from Jim mentioning that he recently saw COOL HAND LUKE (you should probably do the same). There's a few old cars and people chain-smoking indoors, but no one looks or sounds like they're in the late '60s. Speaking of sounds, if this is upstate New York in the Catskills, why is everyone breaking out overbaked Southern drawls like they're auditioning for a community theater version of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT? (PG-13, 97 mins)

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