Let us start with what usually happens. A film is made and becomes a small-to-moderate hit. There is not a huge appetite for a sequel – not in theatres at any rate – but there is enough brand value and audience goodwill for a studio to produce something smaller, less ambitious, and cheaper for the home video market. The new film can trade off the original’s reputation and provide some extra profit for the studio. Of course as a smaller film this direct-to-video sequel will lack the original’s star power and budget, often leading to audience disappointment and a well-earned cynicism about these kinds of films. The direct-to-video (or DTV) sequel really had its heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s, with a regular string of releases including From Dusk Till Dawn 2 and 3, American Psycho 2, an additional six Children of the Corn movies, Darkman 2, I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, and countless more.
Escape Plan was a largely overlooked 2013 action film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It relied heavily on nostalgia and managed to generate a lot of audience appeal by replicating the sort of robust, exaggerted action that its stars made famous in the 1980s. It was not a hit in the USA, but did enough business internationally to be picked up for a sequel. The sequel misses Schwarzenegger, but does feature Stallone – and that is a casting that suggests a more prestigious sequel than a simple direct-to-video job. The suggestion is a lie.
Escape Plan 2: Hades is, in form and style, as typical a DTV job as you could find. Returning actors Stallone and Curtis Jackson do not appear much at all, and when they do it is in the same limited number of settings that gives away how little each likely spent on-set during production. The film is promoted as pairing Stallone with rising star Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy, Spectre), and yet they only share one key scene: the rest of Bautista’s time is spent in barely related dialogue sequences over the telephone. The rest of the film focuses on Stallone’s proteges, trapped inside an inescapable prison and struggling to find a means of escape.
How can such a small and derivative production keep a hold of its stars and even add a third? The answer is China.
China is, at the time of writing, the second-largest film market in the world. It is clearly going to overtake the USA within a decade or so. For Hollywood productions it is a potentially vast market – if only there was a way to capture Chinese viewers in some fashion. This has led to films being set in China (the live-action Mulan, The Great Wall), featuring exclusive Chinese scenes (Iron Man 3), and including Chinese stars (Rogue One, the forthcoming Marvel film Shang Chi). Escape Plan 2 makes use of Chinese action star and pop singer Huang Xiaoming, whose previous roles have been in local hits Ip Man 2, The Sacrifice (both 2010), Badges of Fury (2013), and The Crossing (2014). It is he who plays the protege of Ray Breslin (Stallone), and he who is the true protagonist of the film.
It is a clever commercial strategy: make an action flick for the Chinese market, and throw in some easily-shot scenes with Hollywood stars that can be liberally sprinkled throughout the core narrative so that it can be sold to audiences back home as well. Clever finances, however, are a separate matter to good storytelling; in the case of Escape Plan 2: Hades no one has bothered with the story.
Huang plays Shu Ren, an employee in Ray Breslin’s prison-breaking consultancy. One year after a mission goes wrong – for some reason breaking out of prisons also includes rescuing hostages from Chechnyan terrorists – Shu takes up protecting his childhood friend Yusheng (Chen Tang), whose new satellite technology has made him a target for criminals. When they are ambushed and captured, Shu wakes up inside “Hades” – a high-technology prison from which he and Yusheng cannot escape.
The remainder of the film involves Shu being forced to participate in one-on-one street fights with the other prisoners, a trio of bald Icelandic hackers who look like the humanoid aliens from Prometheus, Titus Welliver slumming it as a prison warden and torturer known as “the Zookeeper”, Dave Bautista talking on the phone, and Sylvester Stallone having several meetings. The plotting is terrible, and the dialogue risible. The film’s new prison is a bizarre riff on Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 film Cube with neon lighting and robot guards; more science fiction than action-thriller. Director Steven C. Miller fails to capture a firm tone or any atmosphere. Even the fight sequences, the lowest-level requirements of a generic action film, are listless and weak. Huang appears to have learned his line phonetically. Everyone else appears to be simply hanging around – Stallone in particular has never looked so bored on screen. The entire nostalgic appeal of the original Escape Plan is gone, replaced by something genuinely terrible and weirdly incompetent.
Some b-movies and direct-to-video films can be little gems. They can be inventive surprises. Very occasionally they can tell an interesting story, or take a creative risk that wouldn’t be afforded in a studio-based product. More often, however, they are simply not very good. Escape Plan 2 is not very good. More than that – it is a cynical trap. It promises one thing to an American audience and another thing to a Chinese one, cynically takes everyone’s money and then delivers to no one. It is not gaudy or violent enough to qualify it as exploitation cinema, but make no mistake: the producers are definitely doing a lot of exploiting. The talent. The audience. This sequel is so fraudulent that someone ought to be arrested.