'The Escapist': Prison Break By The Numbers

Brian Cox i i

Tough Break: Convict Frank Perry (Brian Cox) had given up on freedom — until his daughter became ill. Colm Hogan/IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Colm Hogan/IFC Films
Brian Cox

Tough Break: Convict Frank Perry (Brian Cox) had given up on freedom — until his daughter became ill.

Colm Hogan/IFC Films

The Escapist

  • Directed by Rupert Wyatt
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 105 minutes

Rated: R for violence and language

Joseph Fiennes i i

Thieves Like Us: Lenny Drake (Joseph Fiennes) lends his criminal expertise to Frank's escape plan. Colm Hogan/IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Colm Hogan/IFC Films
Joseph Fiennes

Thieves Like Us: Lenny Drake (Joseph Fiennes) lends his criminal expertise to Frank's escape plan.

Colm Hogan/IFC Films

The Escapist is an exercise in extravagant brownness, a prison-break movie with an excess of style and attitude — and much less on its mind than first-time director Rupert Wyatt would have us believe.

Brian Cox plays Frank, a morose lifer of a convict with nothing left to lose but the daughter — now critically ill from a heroin overdose — whom he hasn't seen since she was a tyke.

Galvanized by parental instinct, or perhaps by a Catholic desire to atone, the normally passive Frank orchestrates an elaborate break for freedom. With him goes the customary ragtag crew of hoods and losers, whose headgear flags their temperaments more handily than any stuffy old dialogue could do.

The ordinarily dainty Joseph Fiennes? He fiddles with a hoodie that transforms him, more or less, into a menacing lug. Hunger's Liam Cunningham appears in a stolid wool cap, while Brazilian musician Seu Jorge flaunts his dreads as an enigmatic cooker of chemicals in the prison lab.

Mamma Mia's Dominic Cooper, meanwhile, goes ingenuously bare-headed as Lacey, the new cellmate Frank may see as fresh meat — or shades of his unspoiled former self. Cooper's fetching pectorals, meanwhile, do what they can to shore up whatever hopes Wyatt may harbor of passing The Escapist off as a date movie.

That it is not, however — and true to its actual genre, The Escapist is all about process. Whatever human dilemma Wyatt and co-writer Daniel Hardy mean to explore gets swamped by their fetishistic devotion to structure; their two-tier conceit punctuates the brutal rituals of prison life with symbolically loaded logistical sequences, all packaged in a pounding atonal score and bookended by Leonard Cohen and Coldplay.

Frank and his sorry band busy themselves digging and drilling, bumping into brick walls and floundering in shamelessly metaphorical sewers, until The Escapist starts to look like an alarming hybrid of Ratatouille and just about any movie involving the Stations of the Cross. (Indeed, the survivors of the grueling journey actually come up for air at London's Charing Cross tube station.)

The twist is that in this, as in most Hollywood-built houses of correction, the inmates run the asylum: Frank's efforts to cut loose are hindered less by weedy prison officers than by the rigid, efficiently organized pecking order among the muscled types overseen by a con boss named Rizza (played with thuggish brio by Band of Brothers' Damian Lewis).

The real thuggery in The Escapist, however, lies in the movie's alternate pandering to and condescension toward its mostly young, male target audience. We know that you're Guy Ritchie fans, the filmmakers wink; we know that you know the rules of the game when it comes to assaultive thrillers, so we're upping the ante of brutal set pieces and was-it-all-a-dream plot twists. And for dessert, we'll appeal to your deeply buried humanity by throwing in a couple of weighty thoughts about the limits of violence and the importance of blood ties.

In fact The Escapist, like most action movies, reveals itself to be cloyingly sentimental about the redeemable (as opposed to the incorrigible) criminal heart. Both Rizza and Frank have underage prodigals to watch over, and if Rizza — an indefatigable protector of his feral junkie brother (Steven Mackintosh) — makes a plausible bullying godfather, Frank comes, disastrously, to represent dear old dad. The preposterousness of this conceit makes it hard to take seriously the trumped-up ambiguity in Frank's relationship with young Lacey, who's either his prison wife or his beloved son.

It can't end well, but the true casualty of The Escapist is Cox himself — at whose urging Wyatt has lathered up a leftover short from half a decade ago, turning it into a gamy vehicle for an extraordinary actor who ought to be able to find a better outlet for his gifts.

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