Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Exit Plan (The Tomb)

Genre: Action
Premise: A man with an unusual job gets stuck trying to escape from a secret black ops prison.
About: Mixed rumors on this one. Bruce Willis is supposedly attached. But Arnold Schwarzeneggar is also said to have taken an interest in Exit Plan. Either way, it looks like Antoine Fuqua is going to direct. Summit bought up the spec from Miles Chapman back in 2008, whose previous credits include the straight-to-video “Road House 2.” They brought in a slightly hotter writer, Jason Keller, who wrote Tarsem Singh’s upcoming Snow White picture, “The Brothers Grimm: Snow White,” to do the rewrite, but then went back to original writer Chapman. What’s happened in the 2 years since is anyone’s guess.
Writer: Miles Chapman (with earlier revisions by Jason Keller)
Details: 102 pages - 1/06/09 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Sandwiched in between a couple of slooooowwww screenplays, we’ve got ourselves a good old fashioned high-concept escape spec today. The question, however, is the same as whenever I read a high concept screenplay. Does the execution live up to the idea? The inclusion of Bruce Willis did not instill confidence. The man seems to be on his way out, and not just because he’s an asshole to everyone he comes in contact with, but because he just doesn’t seem to give a shit about movies anymore. I’m not sure I’d be much different if I’d starred in a hundred films. I mean, who cares if my last one was any good? As long as I get my check baby! The point is, his attachment is usually a sign that 20 other actors have passed, and that’s never a ringing endorsement for the material.

(Spoilers follow) Exit Plan starts in a top level prison with a felon named Ray Breslin, a hard-ass with an attitude problem – hey, this is actually sounding like it’d be perfect for Willis! Anyway, Breslin appears to be a little brighter than the rest of the rats in this cage, and we soon figure out that he’s planning an escape. After getting himself thrown into isolation, he cleverly creates a fire raid which allows him to sneak out of the prison as one of the firefighters.

Cut to Breslin in an office – receiving a check. Ahhhh, now we get it. Breslin does this for a living. He gets hired to go into prisons under aliases and design an escape meant to expose security flaws. And Ray does the job every single time.

Suffice it to say, he wants a challenge. But his handlers remind him that he’s broken out of every major prison in the U.S. There aren’t any challenges left. What about internationally, he asks. And that’s where things get interesting. There’s a mysterious businessman who wants to purchase Breslin’s services for a secret prison, one that’s so far off the map and so top secret, that he won’t know of its location until he gets there. Breslin can’t sign on the dotted line fast enough.

Big mistake.

After being drugged and thrown into the jail, Breslin realizes that this is unlike any jail he’s ever seen. Cells are stacked on top of each other and see through, with a ring-shaped platform allowing guards to see everyone at all times. Escape demands privacy. Here, there is none. But it gets worse. The warden, a bloodless man named Roman Steffes, doesn’t seem to know who Breslin is. Which means Breslin’s failsafe, being able to tell the warden his real identity, is off the table. And the topper? Breslin finds building schematics based on his OWN STUDY OF PRISONS. This prison was built specifically to withstand every weakness Breslin has ever found in a prison. Uh oh.

Breslin’s only ally is a quick-witted man name Church, who rightfully thinks Breslin’s crazy for even mentioning escape. It’s impossible. Plus Church has his own set of problems. He seems to know one of the most notorious terrorists in the world, and therefore is being watched 24/7 by the guards. How will Breslin ever break out of here, much less with this attention-grabbing buddy of his? And where is “here” anyway?

Yesterday was all about the characters. The inner journey is what drove the story. Here, it’s the plot that’s the star. It’s the twists and turns and surprises and reversals that keep you reading, and boy are there a couple of doozys. I’ve read a lot of scripts, so it takes a lot to trick me or make me wonder what’s going to happen next. And while I definitely had some suspicions, I was genuinely surprised a few times. There’s a late 3rd act reveal in particular that I did not see coming, and it was a good one.

What’s cool about Exit Plan though is that it still cares about its characters. They might not be as well-rounded as, say, the characters in The Godfather, but Breslin is someone with a real past, believable motivation, and crippling flaws. Breslin’s parents were murdered when he was younger and the killers were able to escape prison. Breslin’s set on the bad guys never finding a way out again. And that’s why he does what he does. It’s a great reminder that you can come up with a cool idea for a movie, but you still have to make the hero interesting enough that some bankable star will want to play him.

There’s a lot of writing skill on display here for an action flick actually. I took note of this towards the end, as in every action thriller, you want to up the stakes to draw out the most amount of tension and excitement possible. If the stakes and the time frame are the same as what they were in the second act, then there’s no real difference between then and now, and the third act fizzles. This is kind of what happened yesterday in Great Hope Springs. So in the third act of Exit Plan, Roman meets with Breslin and gives him 24 hours to get the location of Church’s terrorist buddy, or he’s going to keep Breslin in this prison on 24 hour surveillance for the rest of his life. From that moment on, the story takes on a considerable amount of urgency. And it’s all because the writer knew he had to up the stakes in the third act.

Another great thing about the script is just how impossible it makes Breslin’s mission seem. Again, this is what writing action-thrillers is about. You want to make the hero’s goal seem as impossible as you can so it looks like there’s no way to succeed. You do that and we’ll be at the edge of our seats the whole time. In Exit Plan, there’s never any privacy for the prisoners. The warden doesn’t care about Breslin’s real identity. The prison was built specifically to hold him in. The location makes an escape impossible. I mean, we really have no idea how he’s going to pull this off, and that’s what makes each step he takes so dramatically compelling.

However, I did have a few issues. First of all – and I find this to be a problem in a lot of “escape” films/TV shows, not just this one – not everything Breslin does is as clever as it needs to be to sell his genius. For example, he uses a heat reflection pad to de-oxidize screws to escape through some floor panels. I have no idea if this is possible in real life or not, but I do know that to the average audience member, it sounds made up. This is why Shawshank is the best prison movie ever made. The escape was not only clever, but it was simple. We just “got it.” I’m not sure that de-iodizing screws is going to do anything but confuse an audience. And there were a few other less than stellar choices in the steps he took to escape as well. So I’m hoping they came up with better choices in the rewrites.

On top of that, Chapman may have dug himself into too deep of a hole. Like I said above, it’s important to make things as impossible as you can for your hero. But only if you can write yourself out of those impossibilities in a believable way. There were some things that I had a hard time buying. For example, they know Breslin’s dangerous. They know Church is dangerous. Why not just assign two guards to watch both of them the entire time? They seemed to have the manpower to do it, and it was definitely necessary with how dangerous they knew them to be, so the fact that they didn’t and Breslin was constantly sneaking around the prison was hard to buy.

But overall, there was a lot more good here than bad. I’ve always liked these “get paid to go in and find faults in a company” films and doing it for a prison seemed like a logical extension of the idea. The added hook of placing Breslin in an impossible-to-escape-from prison where his secret status no longer mattered, was likewise a nice twist. Plot-wise, this was perfectly paced. And I loved the unexpected twist at the end. Easily one of the better “escape” scripts I’ve read in a long time. Hey, what do you know? Two really good scripts in a row this week!

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The easier your hero’s journey is, the more boring your movie will be. Your job, as a writer, is to make your main character achieving his goal as difficult as possible. Doesn’t matter if it’s an action movie or a romantic comedy. MTDD! Make things difficult dammit! (I promise this will be the last acronym I use for “What I Learned”).