Everyone likes a good prison break, as the producers of the American TV show of the same name can happily attest, now that they’re on their fourth series – despite the titular escape having successfully happened at the end of the first. In the movies as well as on television, the excitement of breaking out of gaol has inspired numerous top notch flicks – from the wartime POW classics like The Great Escape and cult favourite Escape to Victory through to more modern takes on convicts struggling to get out like Escape from New York and Alien 3.
Yet there’s always a bit of a problem with dealing with escapes from prisons when those impounded are actual criminals, rather than unlucky soldiers or characters trapped in futuristic dystopias. After all, if they’ve been locked up, they’ve probably done something wrong – unless the filmmakers opt for the old favourite of the innocent man breaking out to prove that he’s not guilty.
As such, this is a bit of a rarity – a prison break flick where those escaping are all genuine criminals. Revolving around an aging institutionalised convict, twelve years into a life sentence and happy to keep his head down until death finally gives him his release, the morality of entertainment based on criminals escaping justice was always going to be a tricky one to handle, especially as this is – on the surface – a fairly typical action-packed thriller.
But where Hollywood may have turned this into one of those morally ambiguous summer movies where it’s all about the action, this is an Anglo-Irish production and, as such, has opted for a more low-key approach. The clincher is in the two leads – veteran Brian Cox and the younger thesp Joseph Fiennes (still in the shadow of his brother Ralph, but nonetheless making a good stab at it).
Yes, they could have gone for a guns and glory approach – all violent shoot-outs and bloody massacres – but instead we’ve ended up with a far more interesting and engaging character study, as the two mismatched convicts hatch their escape plan, all to help Cox’s aging con get to see his daughter one last time before she dies of cancer.
Joining the two leads in their escape plan is range of oddball convicts played by an array of quirky character actors, from the well-known Damian Lewis to the less-famous but equally talented Liam Cunningham (best known for Ken Loach’s controversial The Wind That Shakes The Barley) and Dominic Cooper (pretty-boy Dakin in The History Boys) – and even the quirky choice of Brazilian musician Seu Jorge, best known for his oddball acoustic Portuguese cover versions of David Bowie songs in 2004’s The Life Aquatic.
This intriguing and intelligent casting makes for a mismatched, bickering group up there with the best of them, from The Dirty Dozen to The Magnificent Seven – all scrabbling around in tunnels like a grimier version of The Great Escape. If you go in expecting spectacle and excitement, you’ll get a bit to keep you happy, but will likely end up disappointed. However, if you’re looking for a sympathetic look at the nature of regret, rehabilitation and redemption amongst the criminal classes – with a bit of action chucked in for good measure – then look no further. It may not be a masterpiece, but this is nonetheless well worth a couple of hours of your time – not least for yet another of the acting masterclasses which we’ve all come to expect from the oft-underrated Cox.