Sunday, May 15, 2016

Escape from New York

Someone once suggested to me that Escape from New York and Raiders of the Lost Ark are two sides of the same coin. Both were released in 1981, made by filmmakers really hitting their stride, and influenced heavily by earlier films, but that's were the similarities end. Raiders is set in the past, gives a square-jawed, All-American action hero, clearly defined good and evil, a noble cause, and is a globe-trotting adventure. It's inspired by the cheery action serials of the 1930s.

By contrast, Escape from New York takes place in the future, and boy, what a future. This is a dark, pessimistic future, one cynical about the government and the nation. America is no longer a shining democracy but a totalitarian police state, the protagonist is a disillusioned war hero turned criminal who cares only for himself, and it takes place not in a far-off exotic country but in a decayed, derelict American city now used as an open prison. This movie takes its influence from Spaghetti Westerns and the urban crime genres, where the world is a hellhole and everyone's a scumbag.

Of course, Steven Spielberg made Raiders and John Carpenter made Escape, and this wouldn't be the last time they released movies about similar subject with completely disparate tones. Spielberg tends to be warm and nostalgic. Carpenter is grim and dark, but he also loads the movie with a sly sense of humor and just an overwhelming sense of cool.

Escape from New York takes place in the far off distant future of 1997. Crime has gotten so bad that Manhattan has been walled off and turned into a maximum security prison where the inmates have free reign of the island, but no one gets in or out. En route to a peace summit with China and the Soviet Union, Air Force One is hijacked and crashed into the city, where the President (Donald Pleasance) is captured by the convicts. Police Commission Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) makes an offer to Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former Special Forces soldier about to be imprisoned: go in, rescue the president, and receive a full pardon. As an added incentive, Hauk injects Snake with a bomb that will kill him if he doesn't return in 24 hours.

Compared to modern action movies, Escape from New York might seem slow and less flashy. It's more a suspense thriller with an occasional bit of action. New York is a dark, scary place (more so than usual). Cannibalistic crazies live in the sewer, gangs control the streets, and the place looks apocalyptic. The visions of New York without electricity, and the image of the blackened city skyline is striking. Snake infiltrates New York on glider, and it's a cool sequence as he soars among the derelict buildings.

The film also has a humorous streak, and the film has fun sending up New York. Broadway shows are still going on in, now put on by convicts in drag, and Ernest Borgnine turns up as Cabbie, a cab driver who's been driving the streets for 30 years and knows which neighborhoods to avoid. Snake at one point has to fight a death match against wrestler Ox Baker in what I guess is meant to be Madison Square Garden. The President is also made to be an enormous wimp and useless, a quivering coward. And Snake has a dry sense of humor, and he just does not give a shit about anything; told the President has been taken captive, Snake replies, "The president of what?"

Snake is an iconic bad ass. The world has gone to Hell, and he only cares about himself, but he does have his own code of honor. We don't learn why he became a criminal, but we know something went wrong in the world and America to drive him away. Kurt Russell gives what's arguably his best performance. He snarls and grimaces like Clint Eastwood, a sci-fi outlaw.

Russell's helped by a great cast. Van Cleef, Borgnine, Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York who rules the criminal population, Harry Dean Stanton as an old cohort of Snake's, Adrienne Barbeau as Stanton's tough "squeeze," and there's even bit parts for Carpenter regulars Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, and Frank Doubleday, memorable as Romero, the Duke's creepy, cackling toady.

I'll be honest. I didn't care much for Escape from New York the first time I saw it. I saw after its sequel Escape from LA, which recycles the same plot and has a bigger budget to pump up the action sequences. But the more I see the original, the more it grows on me. In retrospect, LA has its moments but rehashes too much and the tone is more cartoonish. Escape from New York is just ... cool.

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