Welcome to hell. In order to properly contextualize just how painful it is to sit through “Escape Plan 2: Hades,” here is a comprehensive list of the movie’s virtues:
- Sylvester Stallone successfully says the word “algorithm.”
- 50 Cent plays a GQ-styled security expert named “Hush.”
- There’s a scene where Dave Bautista solves a Rubik’s Cube and then physically threatens Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz.
- At one point, Bautista walks by a marquee for Idina Menzel while wearing an outfit that can only be described as “Pitbull cos-play.”
- The film immediately cuts away the moment that Stallone begins to creep on one of his employees.
- That employee is played by Jaime King, an actress who continues to make everything she’s in at least a little bit better.
- Titus Welliver shows up as an ultra-serious bad guy who insists that his victims call him “The Zookeeper.”
And that’s it. A direct-to-video sequel to a 2013 action movie that you probably didn’t see (its meager domestic box office was offset by huge international returns), “Hades” might boast some decent star power, but there isn’t a celebrity in the world who could save this bargain bin nonsense from feeling like a bootlegged ripoff of its own franchise. Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who faced off against Stallone in the first one, could have rescued this from abject boredom. He chose to stay home and tweet about Trump instead of humiliating himself for a small paycheck — we should all be so privileged.
The “Cube 2: Hypercube” of the “Escape Plan” trilogy — a third installment is already in the can — “Hades” once again hinges on beefcake entrepreneur Ray Benson (Stallone), whose small Atlanta firm designs inescapable prisons for anyone who has the money to pay them. No matter how many movies get added to this braindead series, it will always be amusing that Benson’s team approaches building a jail like they’re designing a theme park, as if the whole “cement room with metal bars on the door” concept is suddenly obsolete now that people have iPhones.
To that end, Benson even fires an employee named Jaspar Kimbral (Wes Chatham) because the kid places more faith in some algorithm he coded than he does in his own teammates, a decision that results in a preventable tragedy during the otherwise pointless action scene that opens the movie. Punk-ass millennials, always relying on their Snapchats or whatever to break out of Chechen prisons! Of course a baby boomer like Benson is going to flush that trash down the toilet.
Meanwhile, Benson’s best hire and VP of martial arts finds himself in a spot of trouble. Shu Ren (played by Chinese star Huang Xiaoming, a fun nod to the fact that “Escape Plan” made $41 million over there), while on a trip to Shanghai to visit his tech billionaire cousin (Chen Tang as Yushen), gets nabbed by some baddies and tossed deep into the ninth layer of a futuristic secret prison called Hades. To be perfectly honest, it kinda seems like the only layer of Hades, as the supposedly inescapable super-jail is pretty much just a big concrete room with a high ceiling and some cool blue lights. The only logical explanation for the cut-rate set is that the film’s design budget may have been funneled into the marketing department. (Please take a moment to awe at the tagline: “He’s back.” It’s the best use of ad money since the U.S. Navy spent $457 million on “Forged from the Sea.”) Anyway, Shu Ren and Yushen want to break out, and Benson’s team wants to break out. A lot of grunting ensues.
Needless to say, you don’t need to have seen the first movie to enjoy “Hades.” In part, that’s because the plot for this movie is perfectly incomprehensible on its own, and in part that’s because you won’t enjoy “Hades” anyway. Despite focusing on a talented foreign star who knows how to settle fisticuffs with believable flair, this sequel flatlines as soon as it settles into the titular petitionary. The trouble starts when Shu Ren is forced to fight with another inmate, the mortal combat promising us the kind of shlocky mid-’90s brawler that made Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles like “The Quest” so much fun.
Alas, director Stephen C. Miller’s erratic handheld compositions seldom allow the fight scenes to find any sort of rhythm (though one of them is amusingly brief), and the film’s bankrupt visual imagination prevents it from achieving a consistent sense of place. Still, the movie’s brief flashes of life inspire hope that the “Marauders” director — a man who’s displayed a truly inspiring ability to take criticism in stride — will eventually outgrow the industrial blue filter that bogs down his work and unleash the inner John Hyams that he hints at from time to time.
Here, however, Miller’s hands were tied, as Miles Chapman’s screenplay never finds a compelling reason to justify why everyone is beating the hell out of each other. In fact, it never finds much of a reason at all. Impressively confusing for a movie with such a simple premise, “Hades” often gives the impression that Miller could only afford to shoot half of the script, and made an executive decision to just film every other page.
How else to explain how little we learn about the prison, or why the people trapped there have to hurt each other, or why it’s name comes from Greek mythology when the warden (Welliver) prefers to think of it is a panopticon or a zoo. Instead of inmates he has “animals,” instead of cells he keeps them in “spokes,” and instead of a medical stuff he has a Cylon with healing lasers. The green death rays he uses to subdue his pets is never really explained, but it sure seems to get the job done.
Shu Ren’s only defense against it is to meditate in his spoke while Stallone delivers bits of voiceover wisdom directly into his brain. Sage kernels of advice like: “You move together, and everything flows as one.” At the very least, it’s a refreshing inversion of the usual white warrior/Asian guru dynamic.
It’s only a matter of time before Stallone rolls up and gets involved in the action himself, but “Hades” is already a lost cause by that point, a messy and unmotivated parade of bland close-ups and bad action. At least Stallone has the courtesy not to pretend otherwise. Witness the climactic scene in which a a trio of “Fury Road” rejects explain their master plan, and Stallone’s only response is to stare off into the middle distance and say: “…Whatever, let’s go.” And then he goes. Presumably to call his agent and ask for an airlift to the set of “Creed II.”
Other choice bits of Stallone knowledge include: “With brains and patience, nothing’s impossible.” And also: “Train your mind to look beyond the physical walls that confine you.” Of course, therein lies the silver lining of a direct-to-VOD release. You don’t have to look beyond any physical walls to escape this torment. You just have to lean forward, take a deep breath, and hit the escape button.
“Escape Plan 2: Hades” is now available on VOD.