From the early 1980s through to the mid ‘90s there were really only two real big hitters when it came to the action movie genre. Sure you had Van Damme, Seagal and Chuck Norris, but if you were talking big box office action and not the VHS rental market, then you were talking about Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
For many years they were supposedly fierce rivals. Various newspapers reported that the two would viciously campaign against each other for roles and recently Arnold seemingly confirmed at least some truth in this when he stated that he had “leaked” out the fake news that he was interested in the lead role in Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot! just so Stallone would take the part in the movie, a film that Arnie clearly thought would fail. Stallone also reportedly signed up to play Judge Dredd in the ill-fated 1995 movie version of the iconic comic book character, during a mid flight conversation with studio chiefs where he was told that if he didn’t put pen to paper by the time the plane landed that the role would go to Arnie. Allegedly Stallone caved without even seeing a script or even knowing anything about the character before the film’s release.
How much of this “rivalry” was real is anyone’s guess. They didn’t seem too bothered about teaming up with perhaps their closest rival, Bruce Willis, to front the Planet Hollywood franchise in 1991. Money talks and they didn’t seem to object to being pictured arm in arm on the restaurant chain’s opening night. Also Arnold was a frequent visitor to his pal Franco Columbu’s home when his former Mr Universe training partner was whipping Sly into amazing shape for Rocky III at his home gymnasium. So over the years we maybe got a glimpse of how business and hype may have played a much more important role than any personal feelings.
One thing is clear, however much weight of truth there was in their rivalry, it certainly made good business sense. If you were an action film fan, you may have been established in either camp Sly or camp Arnold, (although you’d still likely watch both of their movies). Back then the prospect of seeing them team up in a movie was the stuff of dreams.
Apparently they were courted for the dual leads in John Woo’s 1997 action movie Face/Off during its early planning. It may sound a little bit of a stretch when you consider the difference in height and stature of the pair, but then nobody ever mistook John Travolta for Nic Cage did they. The proposed alternative version of Face/Off was said to have been set in the future with a more science-fiction take on the story and along with the obvious financial hike this would have required regarding the budget, we also have to accept that the two muscle bound heroes would have demanded a much larger salary than Cage and Travolta got. Although they were both hot properties themselves at the time, Arnie and Sly would’ve likely demanded a lot more money and would’ve definitely fought to have equal pay cheques.
1997 was also the year we saw Arnold receive a reported salary of a whopping $25 million for his role as Mister Freeze in the disastrous Batman & Robin, so it’s safe to say that these guys weren’t going to come cheap.
Not long after Batman & Robin had hit the skids, Arnold was admitted for heart surgery and thanks to some nervousness from the film insurance industry, wouldn’t be seen in an action role until 1999’s underrated paranormal action film, End Of Days. After its release Arnold’s box office appeal had clearly started to wane and his follow-ups The 6th Day (2000) and Collateral Damage (2002) failed to capture filmgoers’ interest as many of his earlier outings had.
The dawn of the new millennium also saw a bleak period for Stallone with Get Carter (2000), Driven (2001), Avenging Angelo (2002) and a bizarre role as the evil Toymaker in 2003’s Spy Kids 3: Game Over. As much as I will always be a huge Stallone fan, these movies will never be on my list of his films to recommend and I would confidently say this would be the case for most other Sly aficionados too. It would take the return of Rocky Balboa in 2006 in the film of the same name to allow Stallone a reprieve.
2003 was also the year when Schwarzenegger announced his intentions to run for the office of the Governor of California. Not known as one to be happy with just taking part in a contest, Arnold won the election and left the world of action movies and glib quips behind him. The dream was over. We’d never see them both on screen together. Or at least that’s what we thought at the time.
Of course we now know it would eventually happen with the release of The Expendables in 2010. Sure it was only one scene and their acting was more than a tad wooden, but hey, Bruce Willis was there too and… Ok, I’ll admit it, it was terrible. It was wooden and played like a badly improvised scene. The rest of the film followed along the same path and although the two sequels gave me more screen time to the two colossuses, the movies themselves left a lot to be desired.
Maybe I’d been wrong all along. Sometimes we don’t need to see the things that we think we want to see and besides, they were both getting on a bit and maybe it wouldn’t have ever worked.
I put my aspirations aside and accepted that my fanboy pipe dreams were just that, and besides, I was more mature and I didn’t need to see another car crash movie involving former idols.
How wrong I was.
Escape Plan (2013) came as a shock, but for all the right reasons. Arnie and Sly battling corrupt prison guards and breaking out of the most highly secure prison ever known. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I was late to this party. I didn’t know much about it until it was firmly in the late pre-production stage. I wasn’t excited at all about the prospect of the film and therefore I didn’t rush to the cinema the same way I had done excitedly for the first Expendables film along with my friend and Film ‘89 compatriot Skye (he was as disappointed as I was). I’d already had my dreams crushed from that experience and wasn’t about to let lightening strike twice. When the movie opened it didn’t receive much in the way of positive reviews and, if I’m honest, I kind of pushed it out of my brain until a friend loaned me the DVD some time after its release. Much to my surprise I found myself enjoying the film and asking how this could be happening. I’d matured, I’d moved on hadn’t I?
Now I’m not trying to tell you that this is a great film. In my capacity as a film critic, I’d probably score it a 7/10 if scores are your thing. But after my previous disappointments, my enjoyment level of that first viewing was pushed up to a 9/10. The film is played much more straight than The Expendables despite its rather outlandish plot. The lack of parody, aside from Arnie telling Sly that he “…hits like a vegetarian”, makes Escape Plan a far superior on every level to their previous team-ups and it left a warm feeling of satisfaction that was most welcome. This was the film that I dreamed of all those years ago at the height of their ‘80s rivalry.
The film did ok at the box office, particularly in the ever growing Chinese market and this has lead to the upcoming sequel, Escape Plan 2: The Hades, due for release later this year. Stallone will reprise his role as jail break expert Ray Breslin, but Arnie is not listed as returning, and I’m alright with that. Sometimes it’s better just to be satisfied with what you’ve had. The less said about Stallone teasing a fourth Expendables film on his Instagram account recently, the better.
I’m no expert on the theory of parallel universes but I’d like to think that perhaps there’s at least one out there in which Escape Plan was released in 1993. The two leads were in their prime and the film was a huge success leading to another collaboration a few years later where they played sworn enemies that ended up swapping faces. Now imagine that.