I’ll admit it right up front: I am a fan of the prison film genre. On top of that, I’m a fan of films that assemble a motley crew of malcontents that don’t necessarily get along but all need each other to succeed. This cinematic appreciation has given me gems to adore such as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Great Escape,” “Scum,” “The Dirty Dozen” and, Hell, even “Force 10 from Navarone” (damn youse, Nikolai!!!). And now I get to add another brilliant film to the list, “The Escapist.”
“The Escapist” is the tale of Frank Perry (Brian Cox), a prisoner in jail for life who has just gotten some extremely motivating news that stirs him to do more than just waste away in prison, but to actually try to escape. Assembling a small crew of like-minded prisoners such as chemist Baptista (Seu Jorge), fighter / breaking-and-entering savant Lenny (Joseph Fiennes) and long-time friend Brodie (Liam Cunningham), the plan is set in motion. Of course, as with all great plans, things start to get complicated with the arrival of Frank’s new cellmate James Lacey (Dominic Cooper) and the possibility of running afoul of prison kingpin Rizza (Damian Lewis).
On top of the tried-and-true prison genre formula coupled with the misfit gang formula, Rupert Wyatt’s “The Escapist” flips everything on its ear by playing out in two timelines simultaneously. As the escape goes on, we see the flashbacks of how we got to the escape and as each timeline cuts back and forth, the line begins to blur between what is actually happening when and how. This brilliant spin on the narrative elevates the film into the higher echelon of the genre flicks, and in a way moves the film so far beyond that it almost feels like a disservice to call it a prison film. At the same time, when a film does a genre so right, it’s hardly a disservice to celebrate it.
Beyond love of the genre and narrative genius, this is truly another feather in the cap for legendary actor Brian Cox. His portrayal of Frank has you both pitying and rooting for him, both caring for, and at his most guarded moments, hating him for his inability to really rock the boat, at least as long as he’s got something to lose. Essentially, Cox gives us a charismatic cipher, a character in the background that no one notices and yet he still inspires enough trust to make the most daring of moves.
“The Escapist” is a film worth seeking out, for both its fresh re-invention of the prison film genre and the absolute clinic on acting put on by Brian Cox and the rest of the actors in the film (not a weak link among them).