Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Escape From New York (1981)

Snake is a bad motherfucker

Escape From New York
is the kind of action film they just don't make anymore. The plot is spare but tight and well told, there's long action-free stretches that build atmosphere and tension, it's got a bleak, nihilistic tone, it's got a moody synthesizer score... basically it's a John Carpenter film, and one of his better ones too.

It's the far-flung year of 1997, and the level of crime in New York City has got so bad that the government just said "Fuck it!" and built a wall around it. All hardened criminals get dumped there and left to fight it out. The idea of walling off a city and turning it into a free-range prison doesn't make a whole lot of sense (at least do it in a place no-one will miss, like Detroit) but Carpenter pulls it off. Inside it's kind of like The Warriors, with burnt out buildings and graffiti and gimmicky gangs. This nightmarish slum is presided over by the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) who rides around in a limo with chandeliers hanging from it and lives in the New York Public Library. I don't think he reads much, though.

This is all well and good, but unfortunately Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists and President Donald Pleasance's escape pod is jettisoned right into the heart of Manhattan. He is held hostage by the Duke, and he needs to play an audio tape at a worldwide summit in the next 24 hours or else it will trigger a World War, or something. Luckily the infamous criminal (seriously, everybody on the inside knows who he is) Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is just about to be sent into the prison after a botched robbery. He is made an offer by the chief security officer (Lee Van Cleef!), if he rescues the President within the next 24 hours, all of his charges will be dropped. Snake is distrustful, but figures he's going to prison either way, so what the hell. As an added incentive they inject him with some explosive capsules that will bust his carotid arteries wide open if he's not back in time.

He pilots a glider onto the World Trade Center and once he's inside he is helped out by former partner-in-crime Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). Ernest Borgnine also plays a crazy cab driver and provides the few moments of levity in the film (aside from Snake's quips). Snake gets put in a deathmatch with a huge hairy wrestler dude, gets double-crossed once or twice, and it's ends with a literally explosive chase across the 69th street bridge. He even manages to deliver a final "Fuck you!" to The Man once his mission is complete. Because that's how Snake rolls, bitches.

The computery bits look dated and the models look pretty fake, but everything else looks great. It's all dark and grimy and oppressive, the whole movie takes place at night, which is weird because it's supposed to be over 24 hours (I think Snake is unconscious for a lot of that, though). It's a lot of fun seeing the landmarks like the NY Public Library turned into a gang hideout, or the Statue of Liberty turned into a guard tower. It's also eerie seeing the NYC skyline at night with no lights (made moreso by the World Trade Center still standing tall). Plus, Snake Plissken is such a fantastic character. There's obviously a lot of Clint Eastwood stoicism in there, but he doesn't seem quite as invincible, sometimes surviving by sheer luck and determination. I love the commentary tracks for Kurt Russell/John Carpenter films, because they always sound like they are best buds and had a great time making the film, and here it's obvious that Russell loved playing the character.

Snake returned in Escape from L.A., which is basically the same movie in a different location, only cheesier and more cartoony and full of bad CGI and also shitty. I don't know if this is John Carpenter's best film, but it's real good. Both this film and Mad Max would inspire dozens of copycats over next decade or so, but nothing would match them.

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