Tuesday 8 July 2014

Escape Plan: Muscle Men, the System and Breaking Free

The following post was originally written for another blog but has ended up finding a home here instead. As such, it is a little longer than normal. Regardless, here is a theological reflection on the muscley goodness of Stallone and Schwarzenegger for your salutation and enjoyment.

Escape Plan is in many ways a film about freedom. Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is a master of breaking out of maximum security prisons who regularly entraps himself in the most elaborate of confines to work out the weaknesses in the system. After breaking out of fourteen maximum security prisons in seven years Breslin seems to be addicted not just to breaking out, but also to life on the inside.


After an impressive jailbreak in the opening scene Breslin is introduced to the warden of the prison he has just escaped from. The warden says that he has only one question for Breslin: “what kind of man would choose to spend most of his life in prison?”. Breslin’s expertise as a security expert more than qualifies him to assess flaws in the system but what is remarkable is that he elects to take such a hands-on role. He spends his time locked up not just in open prison but often in solitary confinement. Despite the close bond which he shares with his team of assistants Breslin spends more time by himself in a cell. He is depicted from the outset as a solitary, independent man who uses contacts within the prison to aid his escapes without establishing any sort of permanent or personal connection. He isolates himself not just from his fellow-inmates but from God. In the film’s opening seconds Breslin is shown holding a Bible and a close-up shows us that he is turned to Jeremiah 15:6, which reads:

“Jerusalem, you have left me,” says the Lord.
    “You keep going farther and farther away,
so I have taken hold of you and destroyed you.
    I was tired of holding back my anger.

The Bible page is only useful for Breslin as something which can be burned to make ash and yet the passage’s message fits well with his character in the opening stages. Breslin feels abandoned and isolated from everyone around him, including God. His sense that God is set against him embeds him within the isolation he feels inside his cell.

Moral Compromise

After making his latest escape Breslin is faced with a difficult decision. A government agent offers him a new assignment for double his usual fee but in an unknown location and without many of the safeguards which he usually insists upon. Despite warnings from his team Breslin agrees to take the job, with money being a key factor. When his assistant Abigail says that he is only taking the job because he’s “ambitious and greedy” Breslin retorts, “You say that like it’s a bad thing”. Yet the decision backfires – at the pick-up point Breslin is effectively kidnapped. His tracking chip is removed, he is given an injection which knocks him out and transported by a deranged guard who kills a fellow-prisoner on the journey. When he wakes up Breslin finds that he is in a prison like no other: one which is deep underground, where ominous masked guards regularly beat up prisoners and where his treasured extraction code is laughed at.

In the prison Breslin encounters another person who has compromised for financial reward. Dr Kyrie is entrusted with keeping the prisoners alive since each inmate’s imprisonment is extremely profitable. Breslin challenges the Doctor’s integrity, asking him, “How can a doctor work in a place like this?”. Dr Kyrie’s response is to simply ask, “Would you prefer that there was no doctor?”. Despite initially possessing a thick skin which allowed him to turn a blind eye to his moral compromise the Doctor is eventually convicted of his duplicity. Breslin challenges him to read his medical oath to work for the wellbeing of his patients, a promise which the Doctor eventually feels compelled to honour. Both Breslin and Dr Kyrie represent figures enticed into morally dubious jobs by the financial reward held out to them. Yet both eventually realise that they have been tricked into moral compromise and feel compelled to escape the consequences of their decisions.

The System

The temptation to compromise for money is an example of the larger system of confinement and restriction which the prison represents. Naturally, the prisoners are denied their freedom. Yet this prison crushes the spirits and personalities of the inmates more than any other. The warden summarises its effect in this way: “In here you have no control over any part of your life, except your breathing”. Breslin is indeed a man imprisoned not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually. Explaining to his fellow-prisoner Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) how the loss of his child at the hands of a criminal motivates him in his job he says, “Taking a man’s life is nothing. Taking a man’s heart – that’s everything, isn’t it?”. Breslin, Rottmayer and the other prisoners are trapped in a place which not only denies them their freedom but which also destroys their sense of hope that freedom is either possible or desirable.

Religion plays a key role within the system for some of the prisoners. Javed (Faran Tahir) and a group of other Muslim prisoners maintain a life of integrity and faith even within the constrictive prison environment. Rottmayer remarks that he is impressed by the dedication of the group, which prays continually as a lack of daylight prevents them from knowing when the allocated hours for prayer occur. Despite the zealous pursuit of faith for those involved, religion does not liberate the prisoners. Faith is possible within the system but, ultimately, does not in and of itself guarantee freedom from the system. Javed is unique in that he persuasively uses his faith as an asset in order to gain access to the rooftop in order to help establish the prison’s position. Javed is diplomatic in his relationship to religion but ultimately uses it to aid the escape plan. Religion may not bring freedom from the system in and of itself but it can constitute an essential part of the way out.

Freedom Through the Cross

‘The system’ - that is to say, the prison network from which Breslin and his fellow-inmates try to escape – can be tied to the Bible’s presentation of sin. As Jesus put it, “everyone who lives in sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Sin is an oppressive force which traps a person within a cycle of bad choices and alienation from God. Yet Jesus was convinced that slavery to sin was not a prison from which there is no escape: “If you continue to obey my teaching, you are truly my followers. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32). Freedom, for Jesus, was not just an abstract concept but a reality which was available to be lived in through encountering truth. True freedom is the freedom from sin which is available through Jesus Himself.

Freedom allows a person the right to decide the way in which they want to live. Once he and Rottmeyer have broken out of the prison Breslin has a choice to make. Does he repeat his mistake in taking the highest offer available to go back to jail or does he choose to remain outside the system? The answer within the final scene isn’t obvious; when given a pile of job offers he merely says, “maybe later”. Similarly, the Bible is clear that everyone faces a choice about whether to remain inside the prison of sin or to break out of it. As it says in Romans 6:16, “Surely you know that when you give yourselves like slaves to obey someone, then you are really slaves of that person. The person you obey is your master. You can follow sin, which brings spiritual death, or you can obey God, which makes you right with him.”. However, this freedom from sin can’t be attained simply by perseverance or effort. As Breslin states, every successful prison break needs help either from inside or outside. Jesus’ death on the cross was precisely that “help from the outside”. Earlier in Romans 6 it states the following: “We know that our old life died with Christ on the cross so that our sinful selves would have no power over us and we would not be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). The Bible says that the cross makes the decisive difference as the one thing that can bring true liberation. It may be too speculative to suggest that Breslin has progressed from isolation from God (represented in his burning of Jeremiah 15:6) to freedom from sin. Yet his story does show the crippling effects of incarceration on the human spirit and point towards what true freedom looks like.