Ever since the estimable Michael Mann cast him as Hannibal Lecktor (sic) in Manhunter, the first and best adapation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, Brian Denis Cox has been one of the go-to guys for supporting roles – a British equivalent, say, of the late J.T. Walsh, who once seemed to be the beneficiary of a contractual obligation to appear in every American film. From Rob Roy to Braveheart, through The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss the Girls, The Ring, Troy and the X-Men sequel, Cox brought a combination of Shakespearean gravitas and crumple-faced grandfatherliness to a wide variety of different roles, including a terrific turn in the first two Bourne films. As a leading man, however, his Welsh counterpart, Anthony Hopkins, always seemed to beat him to the punch, adding insult to injury by winning an Academy Award for a rather less subtle portrayal of Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ in The Silence of the Lambs, in which Hopkins ate more scenery than human viscera. Now, at last, audiences’ collective fondness for the sexagenarian Scot seems to have been channelled through writer-director Rupert Wyatt, who first cast him in the classy short film Get the Picture and, now, as a bona fide leading man in Wyatt’s feature film debut, an engaging, often gripping prison drama which, in a genre crowded with classics – of which The Shawshank Redemption, Papillon, Escape from Alcatraz and The Great Escape are the best known, if not the best – stands proudly among them.
Cox plays Frank Perry, a hardened criminal twelve years into a life sentence for an unspecified, but evidently serious, crime, who survives by keeping his nose clean, his head down, and out of the way of the prison’s ‘Mr Big’, Rizza (Damian Lewis). Discovering that his estranged daughter has a serious drug problem, however, Perry resolves to break out of the north London nick he calls home, in order to save her from herself – and perhaps, by doing so, redeem himself. Naturally, this being a prison escape movie, he is accompanied by a group of fellow inmates, each of whom has a relevant skill to offer, and a pertinent reason to seek early release. Among these is former sewage worker Brodie (Liam Cunningham), hardman Lenny (Joseph Fiennes), drug dealer Viv Batista (Seu Jorge) and Perry’s new cellmate, Lacey (Mamma Mia’s young buck Dominic Cooper), who has barely put his pin-ups on the wall when he falls foul of Rizza’s psychotic brother Tony (Steven Mackintosh). So far, so cliché, you might think – but rest assured, The Escapist has two bold tricks up its sleeve.
The first is Wyatt’s use of the ‘cut-up chronology’ narrative device made popular by Pulp Fiction, and subsequently utilised, often to reductive effect, in lesser films, usually to mask or dress up a weakness of plot. Here, however, what seems at first to be storytelling trickery – the prison break itself is intercut, out of chronological order, with the escape plan being hatched – actually serves the second of the film’s narrative devices, a killer twist which reveals the film to have been inspired by familiar source material, which nevertheless cannot be identified without giving the game away, and announces writer-director Wyatt as a talent to watch.
With limited resources, and a laudable, stylistically valid refusal to escape the confines of a single location, Wyatt proves himself adept at building suspense. Furthermore, he manages to keep the character stuff as gripping as the business of escaping, despite his script’s deliberately minimalistic dialogue, and demonstrates an equally sure hand with camera angles and actors. Cox is a commanding presence throughout, despite his character’s softly-spoken demeanour – a reminder of just how ingeniously the actor nailed Hannibal The Cannibal’s unique sociopathology. Among the supporting cast, Lewis and Mackintosh are standouts, the former taking a leaf out of Cox’s less-is-more-threatening acting book, the latter intimidating fellow inmates, secure in the knowledge that his brother’s status effectively makes him untouchable. Only Fiennes lets the side down, his over-inflated physique matched by his overdone acting.
That, however, is niggling. The Escapist is not only the best prison drama since The Shawshank Redemption, it’s easily the best British film of last year, and richly deserves its soon-to-be-cult film status.
DVD EXTRAS: Wyatt and Dominic Cooper provide a jovial commentary, largely concerning itself with the physically arduous shoot, stretched by limitations of time and budget. Equally revealing is the 23-minute ‘making of’, in which Wyatt confesses that the principal reason he wrote The Escapist was because Cox testily insisted on being written a leading role – a tale the actor abashedly admits to being true. Rounding out the package is some raw behind-the-scenes footage, which illustrates the testimony of the put-upon cast and crew; sadly, Wyatt’s earlier collaboration with Cox is not included.