Underrated/Underseen

Break Free With These Underrated & Underseen Prison Escape Films

Forget Shawshank: we highlight some lesser known prison escape films, either forgotten or unfairly savaged by the critics

In Underrated/Underseen, we highlight movies within a particular sub-genre or theme that either failed to get their due upon release, deserve a second chance, or were overlooked by the critics.

In life and cinema, a wrongful incarnation can only be redeemed by the most cathartic escape. For this reason, the prison break sub-genre has long captured the imaginations of audiences. But it isn't necessarily why, but how, that makes the greatest escape, from the papier-mâché antics of Escape from Alcatraz to the sewage-crawling of The Shawshank Redemption. The prison break genre is packed with established classics, though fame isn't everything. Dig deeper with these lesser-known entries in this thrilling sub-genre…

 

Escape from L.A. (1996)

Underrated or Underseen: Underrated

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

John Carpenter's Escape from New York is often considered to be one of the best films of the '80s; a taut, tense and unashamedly pulpy prison escape movie with Kurt Russell in his most iconic role as badass Snake Plissken. The belated sequel, Escape from L.A., is not. Maybe the fact that it was seen as a carbon copy of the original, with basically the same plot transposed to the West Coast, made it seem like a tired rehash. In retrospect, this actually looks like a purposeful – and playful – deconstruction of the nature of sequels, offering its own wacky thrills. Watch Snake… surf! Play basketball! The original's grit is sorely lacking, but there's dumb fun to be had (albeit in a “What the heck!?” kind of way).

 

Lucky Break (2001)

Where to watch it: Home video only

Underrated or Underseen: Both

“What if The Full Monty, but prison?” is basically the pitch for entertaining prison-set dramedy Lucky Break (not exactly a surprise, given it's directed by Peter Cattaneo, the man behind The Full Monty)James Nesbitt plays a likeable inmate who agrees to stage a musical based on the life of Nelson. But really it's an elaborate cover-up for a daring escape plot. There's a plethora of British talent here, including Olivia Williams and Christopher Plummer, but it's Timothy Spall's sad-sack that steals the film outright. Lucky Break doesn't come close to tapping into whatever magic The Full Monty did – tonally it doesn't always find its footing – but the fact this film lacks absolutely any cultural footprint seems like a bit of an oversight. The very definition of affable viewing.

 

Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003)

Underrated or Underseen: Both

Where to watch it: Home video only

The perfect dystopian thrills of Battle Royale meant that Battle Royale II: Requiem basically had no chance in matching the original. But viewed as a separate entity, this sequel is a spectacular slice of action cinema, though its excessiveness is undeniable. Picking up the story where Battle Royale left off, Requiem hones in on former winner Shuya Nanahara – now a wanted terrorist – as he becomes a target for the players in an entirely new game. This time, participants are – wait for it – handcuffed together… and if their partner dies, so do they. Rough around the edges, certainly, but still a blast, and its Saving Private Ryan-inspired opener is phenomenal.

 

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Underrated or Underseen: Underseen

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Werner Herzog clearly saw a kindred spirit in German-born American pilot Dieter Dengler, a soldier downed during the Vietnam war and imprisoned in a POW camp, before mounting a daring escape; he made a documentary about it, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and then later set about on this fictionalised retelling, starring Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn is, true to Herzog's most infamous jungle-set dramas, a film where the actors appear to have committed themselves entirely to the experience. The subject matter certainly lends it a harrowing quality, but it's also unexpectedly funny, as Bale's hero rallies together a group of misfits in a flight for freedom, transforming a gruelling arthouse prison film into an old-fashioned escape yarn. Arguably no Herzog film better bridged the gap between his arthouse sensibilities and more traditional Hollywood fare than this one.

The Escapist (2008)

Underrated or Underseen: Underseen

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Rupert Wyatt would go on to achieve Hollywood-sized success with reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, though he made his directorial debut with this gripping – and very British – escape flick starring Brian Cox, Damian Lewis, Joseph Fiennes, and Dominic Cooper. In many ways, The Escapist is a prison escape film about prison escape films, taking pleasure in embracing the cliches of the sub-genre wholeheartedly whilst also cleverly subverting a few. It's swiftly paced and well-acted, leading to a twisty but somewhat questionable finale. Yet the escape itself is thrilling and tense, the photography is crisp and atmospheric, and Cox is standout as the aged inmate with a legit reason to flee.

 

The Way Back (2010)

Underrated or Underseen: Both

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Australian filmmaker Peter Weir – The Truman Show, Master and Commander – is arguably one of the best popular filmmakers who never became a household name. One of his most underrated films, The Way Back (not to be confused with that new sad Ben Affleck drama), garnered little critical notice and was a box office failure back in 2010, but now feels like another overlooked gem in his eclectic canon. Loosely based on Polish soldier Slavomir Rawicz’s factually-disputed memoir, it chronicles an alleged escape from a Russian gulag across endlessly gruelling terrain. Colin Farrell brings dedication and gravitas to the lead role, in a film of great beauty and mythical proportions – one that sets out to tackle the meaning of life itself. Also there is Saoirse Ronan.

 

The Next Three Days (2010)

Underrated or Underseen: Both

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

There's a certain type of Hollywood thriller that has fallen out of favour these days: the kind that once would have seen Harrison Ford as a doctor or a scientist or a lawyer racing around a city, caught in a conspiracy, yelling about his wife. At the time, these films were ten a penny and easy to dismiss. Now, with multiplexes filled with endless superheroes and CGI-heavy Dwayne Johnson films, you might pine for that kind of simple-minded thriller. The Next Three Days is one such film, though it's Russell Crowe, not Ford, planning an elaborate prison break after his wife, Elizabeth Banks, is wrongly accused of murder. Formulaic in a way that now seems oddly refreshing, Paul Haggis' film works far better once you accept the implausibility of it all. Did we mention Liam Neeson stars as a “prison escape expert”?

 

Escape From Pretoria (2020)

Underrated or Underseen: Both

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Former boy wizard Daniel Radcliffe – with big beard and glasses – stars as real-life apartheid-era activist Tim Jenkin, imprisoned in the notorious titular fortress for distributing anti-establishment pamphlets, before making a daring escape with a series of makeshift wooden keys (you couldn't make this up). Almost entirely devoid of characterisation and sub-plots, Escape from Pretoria unravels instead as a series of tense and agonising set-pieces. It's a carefully-constructed and inventively-shot B-movie delight that manages to sustain a genuine tension from start to finish. And Radcliffe sells us Jenkin's determination in a refreshingly ego-free performance.

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