Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Escape From New York (1981)

Escape From New York (1981)

Director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell teamed up to make three memorable movies during the eighties, one of which I wrote about not too long ago. Another is the action comedy classic 'Big Trouble in Little China'. 'Escape From New York' was the first of that particular collaborative 'trilogy' to be made (Carpenter and Russell also collaborated on an Elvis TV biopic a few years prior), and while I find it to be the weakest of the bunch, it still made an impression and is noteworthy for having created an iconic antihero in the form of Snake Plissken.

The story is deliriously over the top. In the future (1997!), New York's Manhattan Island has been walled off and converted into a maximum security penitentiary for the entire U.S. There are no guards and no rules, just convicts who have been thrown together and who have created their own violent and lawless community. Disaster strikes when the U.S. President's (Donald Pleasance) plane is hijacked and he's forced to eject into... the middle of Manhattan! He's promptly taken prisoner by a group of inmates who threaten to kill him if the police attempt a rescue. Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) realises that he has an ace up his sleeve in the form of an ex-soldier about to be incarcerated - one Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Hauk informs Snake that the President is carrying vital secret information regarding nuclear technology that must be delivered to a summit that takes place in 24 hours; he offers Snake a full pardon if he can conduct a covert operation to go in and bring the President out within that time. Snake agrees, but as insurance Hauk injects mini explosives into Snake that will go off in 22 hours; they will only be diffused if he brings back the President in time.

Snake enters the 'prison' via stealth glider and begins his race against time to locate the President. He encounters the strange and hostile inmates of the prison, but also obtains the assistance of several allies - Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) - as he works to free the President from the clutches of the 'Duke' (Isaac Hayes), the leader of the inmates.

The overall concept is ridiculous and yet compelling at the same time. It sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does because the world of the film is bizarre and unhinged from reality as we know it. The Manhattan on display reminds me a bit of the bizarreness of the New York depicted in 'The Warriors'. The people that populate Manhattan prison are strange and surreal (though they aren't as colourful as the street gangs of 'The Warriors'). There's a gritty and run down quality to the whole place and the low budget aesthetic lends the whole thing an air of verisimilitude. The plot though is ho-hum and relatively disappointing despite the kooky concept, and the only originality in the screenplay comes in the form of an overarching bleak cynicism, with hints of an oppressive government and selfish, untrustworthy people in positions of power (hang on, isn't that reality?). The other major disappointment is the lack of genuine excitement or thrills, with little suspense or tension and action sequences that feel a bit dull. Having said that, Carpenter does deliver a few sudden and capricious deaths that catch you off guard completely.

Its milieu and characters make the whole thing fascinating to watch, and there is a darkly humourous streak to proceedings. The characters are really more caricatures than characters, because there's no real depth to any of them, but this fact doesn't make them any less watchable or entertaining. Towering above all others is the protagonist, Snake Plissken, played brilliantly by Kurt Russell. Snake Plissken really makes the movie and is the single most memorable thing about it. There's nothing complex or layered about the character, but he's magnetic, and watching him race against time in this nightmarish Manhattan is like watching a dangerous wild animal trying to survive in the harsh wilderness. Snake's far from being a nice guy and he only gives a damn about himself, but he's still cool and a complete badass and Kurt Russell is incredibly charismatic in the role. The supporting players do a fair job, but none of them comes close to upstaging Russell.

'Escape From New York' is an entertaining film that is good but not great. I don't think it's as well made as some of Carpenter's other films from the eighties, but I can see why it has a cult following. It has a memorable and original concept and a terrific anti-hero protagonist that together make the film worth watching. I didn't love it, but I did enjoy it and think it's worth checking out.

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