If you're going to make a DTV sequel to Escape Plan – the '13 action junker starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger that never really lived up to its high-tech prison break potential – you might as well hire Steven C. Miller to direct it (just like if you're going to make Hard Target 2, you’d get Scott Adkins to star in it). Miller’s a guy who's made a career out of becoming a veritable cheap thrill factory, always on the brink of B-Movie brilliance. For the best example: see his nasty, mean-spirited Silent Night, Deadly Night remake (whose title was slashed to Silent Night). The guy’s got a solid eye, knows how to stage a killer set piece, and is so good with movie stars Bruce Willis actually worked with him on more than one occasion (suck it, Kevin Smith). Sure, he’s faltered from time to time (last year's Arsenal was a dud, Nic Cage freak out notwithstanding), but there are few in the direct-to-video market who can keep up with both Miller's production rate and attention to stylistic unity.
Escape Plan 2: Hades sees Miller trying to tame an even bigger ego than Willis’: Sylvester Stallone. The sequel once again centers on beefcake Houdini Ray Benson (Stallone), whose Atlanta firm designs inescapable prisons for anyone who’s got the money to pay for them (while also employing a team of mercs who will swoop in and scoop up a set of hostages, should the price point be primo). In the semi-futuristic anti-reality Miller creates, penitentiaries are no longer constructed from concrete and steel, but are essentially convict-stuffed, neon-drenched gladiator arenas, taking the original's "Tomb" and upping it a notch with the ever-shifting titular cell block (though not in the set department, as every cubicle seems to own the same plastic/green-screened octagonal texture). This new lockdown is so secretive, nobody knows where it's located, which becomes a problem for Benson when one of his squad’s members ends up there.
Following a botched mission, two of Benson's men must discover their own path after moving away from the company. Jaspar Kimbral (Wes Chatham) is terminated because he uses an algorithm to destroy a Chechen jail during Hades’ opening set piece: an extraction that results in one of the hostages becoming fatally wounded. Shaken, Shu Ren (Chinese star Huang Xiaoming, anchoring a movie for the country that helped make its predecessor a modest international hit), journeys to Shanghai to visit his tech billionaire cousin (Chen Tang), only to get kidnapped along with the mogul and tossed into the titular jail, where inmates are forced to fight by the “Zookeeper” (Deadwood's Titus Welliver) for the addition or removal of privileges. Weirdly enough, Jaspar's also been confined to this prettily lit Hellhole, a plot development that telegraphs a twist we all pretty much see coming from a million miles away (though this writer still sat up in his seat when the "surprise!" anvil finally dropped).
This means Benson and his remaining set of comrades – the mumbly Hush (50 Cent), field operative Luke (Jesse Metcalfe), and gorgeous admin Abigail (Jaime King) – must try and stage another break-out, which even involves the boss getting himself sent to Hades. For good measure, the wisdom-doling head of the firm even recruits Trent Derosa (Dave Bautista), an old pal whose association is vaguely defined, but you don't really care because from the minute the widely recognized intergalactic brawler is introduced, he starts smashing motherfuckers while wearing solid suits. Look, the plotting for Escape Plan 2 is all over the place – and not helped by a choppy narrative flow that makes you wonder how much of the picture was left on the cutting room floor – but nobody's plunking down $2.99 in their local Walgreens' rental receptacle for Remains of the Day. They just want wall-to-wall violence, which Miller gleefully delivers.
Unfortunately, the fisticuffs are also where the DTV auteur continues to struggle a bit. While Xiaoming – the true star of this home video follow-up (as Stallone is more of a side player this time out) – impressively acquits himself during several instances of hand-to-hand combat, Miller and his regular DP Brandon Cox (Marauders) still can't seem to keep the camera steady enough to capture all the chaos with clarity. There's one super fun shoot out in a bar involving Stallone and Bautista, which also contains some odd geographical issues, despite being contained to a tiny room. Miller often seems to get a little too ambitious with his set ups, cramming in so many angles that they're chopped to pieces in the editing bay. It's a shame, as he's still one of the most visually defined artists working in this action arena, his 2.35 frame often drenched in eye-popping primary shades and lens flares.
Honestly, regardless of the movie's flaws, Miller deserves the most credit for cranking out a picture in reportedly seventeen days, and then (per usual) getting the fuck out of Dodge to helm his next project. As Hades was shot back-to-back with another sequel (Escape Plan 3: Devil's Station) that also stars Stallone, one wonders how rough the shoot might’ve been. Normally, a director – especially one as productive as this – would stick around keep to some uniformity between the installments. But Miller's departure (and replacement by 2 Days In the Valley hack John Herzfeld) makes action addicts wonder if maybe Stallone lived up to his notorious rep of being "difficult", causing the filmmaker to jump ship (and a recent tweet may point toward the shooter's displeasure with the final product). Either way, Miller remained a consummate professional and still put in the work to deliver what's essentially the Redbox ideal: a short, inexpensive thrill ride that may have its problems, but still pairs well with a case of cold beer and a hot burger on an otherwise uneventful Friday night.
Escape Plan 2: Hades is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD.