Ok before you start writing angry letters to the editors here, I am making no jokes at anyone's expense. Brokeback Mountain is a deeply emotional story about two men in a deeply conservative community who find a connection outside the realm permitted by their society and the consequences of the burden of their forbidden love. This is Stallone's version of that. So, you know, take the man-love and replace it with fist fights, take the subtext of societal pressures to conform at the expense of the callings of the soul and replace that with gun fights, and take the gut-wrenching emotional ending and replace that with explosions and you have this movie.
Actually, this is Stallone's version of Shawshank Redpemption but the above title is more incendiary and so now you're reading my article.
Seriously though, Stallone is Tim Robbins and Schwarzenegger is in Morgan Freeman's role.
"you're shitting me, right?"
You get points if you automatically read that in Morgan Freeman's voice, by the way. (Please write to moviepilot to get your prize.) However, no, I'm really not shitting you. Shawshank Redemption, for those of you who don't know what movies are, is a sprawling, decades long epic that uses the allegory of prison life and the allure of escape as a parable about the consequences we all face when life presents consequences we never intended. It is brutal, dismal, uncomfortable, and heart-wrenching. Artfully crafted, it is easy to slip yourself into the protagonist's shoes, as we've all had to live through unforeseen painful consequences to our own shortcomings in life and we all have had to escape that, whether through Red's final acceptance of his fate or Defresne's wits. The movie plays with an artful gravitas and slips deftly between the harsh reality we can face sometimes and the touching camaraderie amongst friends that can carry you through.
This is Stallone's version of that which means, to begin with, throw all that shit out. If you keep the prison motif but put the prison on steroids, keep the wrongly accused man seeking escape and put HIM on steroids, remove the surprising third-act reveal of an escape and announce that from the get-go because thinkee make my brain hurt ril gud, then take Morgan Freeman and replace him with Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, and replace that whole prison rape thing with 50 Cent raping any chance this movie had of winning Oscar gold, and then you have THIS movie. The abusive prison guards, psychotic warden, and overbearing claustrophobia all carry over quite nicely.
Not that any of you care about that, the draw of the movie is watching Stallone and Schwarzenegger beat the holy hell out of things, people, and each other. Now, I have to be honest, this is kind of not that movie, but in good ways.
This is not the 80's anymore. Truthfully, you couldn't have made this movie when these two were the biggest stars in the world. Their animosity was legendary and the cruel and complex pranks they played on each other in and of itself would be enough to get past, not to mention the size of the salaries being prohibitive. So this is not Rambo and Commando teaming up. However, I am also incredibly glad that this is not Stop or My Kindergarten Cop Will Shoot. Or Judge Dredd teaming up with Mister Freeze. In my heart though, I want to believe that in the entire breadth of the multiverse there exists that movie where Stallone and Schwarzenegger teamed up in their prime and it was the awesome and epic spectacle of mangasm that the 80's required. If Stallone had gotten Schwarzenegger to do Rocky IV like he obviously wanted to, that franchise might never have died. (And it might have saved me from the childhood scarring of Dolph Ludgren's The Punisher.) And, frankly, I would DEFINITELY watch Tango and Cash and Conan the Barbarian.
But this movie isn't any of those. This is a prison thriller and not a war movie. By rote, there's a lot less running around for our... (ahem) mature actors. Of course you get to see Ahnuld and Sly get into a fight almost as soon as meeting because, well, everyone wants to see them fight. Because muscles. And 'Murrika. The gun fights and action set pieces, though, are much more subdued than the 80's largess of their respective heydays, giving way to both actors playing characters who are essentially playing metaphorical tough guy chess opposite Jim Caviezel as some meticulously sinister nutjob of a warden. This is another sign that this is not the 80's anymore. The bad guy isn't some truly terrifying axe-weilding psycho who might actually be able to beat Arnie or Sly in a fist fight, but the guy who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. Seriously, Arnie and Sly doing epic battle with scrawny white Jesus. "Watch it! He'll totally walk on water ALL UP AND DOWN your ass!"
So the 80's are through. Stallone, however, is deeply enjoying his career renaissance and I am enjoying it with him. While we will henceforth refer to this stage of his career as his "Viagra Period" (because he's entirely to old to even try to look like he's doing what he's doing on screen but he sure does look like he's enjoying himself doing it,) and besides, he's finally playing his persona right. Stallone's always been very self-aware and an extremely good self-promoter. He's in on the joke and he's not just playing paycheck parts anymore. So, (hopefully,) no more Rambo: First Blood, Part 37, no more Oscar or Cliffhanger or Copland either. Granted Bullet to the Head was a misfire and made me want to go beat up the little troll they keep in the Redbox so he'd give me back my $1.25. However I'm willing to forgive it because it did look good as a concept, even if the script was both depressing and dull at the same time (which thankfully is a problem that was fixed in this movie.)
In this movie Stallone plays a prison consultant who once was a lawyer but now breaks out of supermax prisons for a living (Shush. Stallone movie. Leave your brain in the car,) but he's kind of a MacGuyver with a lifetime membership to 24 Hour Fitness, who gets tasked with breaking out of a privately run, super top secret, impenetrable super prison where the absolute worst of the worst get sent to be "disappeared" by governments who will pay top-dollar to not have any trace of a person who is a threat to the status quo but too useful to kill. The movie actually does bring up some decent points about the nature of a privatized prison system, delving a bit into making money off of incarceration but also about how a corporatocracy and many world governments are bypassing legalities and ethics in regards to handing unwanted citizenry, and also does this without becoming a full-on preach-piece (again, this is Stallone and Schwarzenegger, not Matt Damon and George Clooney.) However, Stallone gets double-crossed and left to rot in a prison that was built purposefully with the text book Stallone had written as a guide, leaving Stallone outsmarted from get-go with nothing but his wits and belief in himself and Arnold Schwarzenegger and their combined muscles to get them through.
With this in mind, the movie does work. Schwarzenegger and Stallone are not blasting their way through everything but using their heads. They're not using brute strength but using deception and taking brutal beatings to accomplish their ends. This prison, being by nature illegal, deals with anything and everything to the harshest extreme possible. To get the things they need to break out of the system, they have to take beatings, stab each other, get tortured, and move forward. Having grown up with this guy being the super invincible 80's demigod of film that he was, I'll admit it's disconcerting to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger get waterboarded. So, again, the 80's are over and while this movie indulges itself in some quippy one-liner dialogue and two lead actors who can't really act too well but are enjoying a paid vacation to work out together and smoke cigars, the script is better, tighter, and more complex than most of what the two leads have done lately. And, known for the beatings they gave, they have to take them now to get out of Purgatory. This is probably one of the more intellectual movies either has done (I am fully aware that this is like choosing the ugliest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover model ever.)
To close, I'd read an interview a while back where Stallone was asked why he cast The Expendables with actors who were older than the marketable stars today. His response was that the action stars today are just actors, that they didn't have to do anything tough before they found Hollywood. And he's right. Even still, watching these old farts move a bit slower in fights than they did thirty years ago, throwing out an excellent vintage of cheesy one-liners as they go, they do it better than any of these younger actors today (except maybe Chris Hemsworth.) Luc Besson tried this not too long ago with Guy Pierce in a flick called Lockout. Aside from the cheesy special effects and the shit script, it sucked because when you have a method actor playing a Schwarzenegger role, he comes off as an unlikeable asshole and, worse, fake.
The reason why Stallone and Schwarzenegger can still act like tough guy jackoffs and get away with it is because they earned the damned right to do so. Stallone lived on the streets for about a year before he sold the script to Rocky. The guy did porn to eat. Schwarzenegger was the product of Nazi hormone experimentation that got cancelled when Hitler was killed (but he's still trying to fulfill that purpose by working out and running for President.) Along those lines, but maybe in the sequel, Danny Trejo got the scars, busted face, and tattoos by being a gang member, which wound him up in prison. These guys could beat your ass for looking at them cross-eyed, and just might do so on principle. So while modern, evolved, and delicate sensibilities might view adult alpha males who act this way as being immature or intellectually stunted, the truth is, they act this way because you're not going to stop them. You can't fake that. These kids in movies today really are just too pretty. There are no broken noses or busted cheekbones on those kids today because if they absolutely could not avoid a fight, they'd be the type to scream "not the face!" before you connected.
So, even though this is a couple guys who couldn't stand each other 30 years ago, going at it again past their prime in an effort to regain relevancy, they still work well for what they do and this movie is a pretty good vehicle for them to do it. I support it in that regard because you can't fake authenticity and frankly, no matter how much you CGI or market demographic yourself into making a movie, if you're going to make action movies, there is no substitute for a leading actor who is not trying to emote and radiate a believable aura that he is not a complete and utter pussy.
Which is why I would probably throw a recommendation for this movie as long as it was better than that God-awful movie where Schwarzenegger gets pregnant. (Thankfully, as I said, it's a serviceable, reasonably paced and decently clever action thriller so I don't have to feel like I'm short-changing you too much by saying check it out if you feel the inkling to.)