Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review: Escape from New York (1981)

Escape from New York (1981)

Rated R

Score: 4 out of 5

Gather 'round, kiddies, because I'm about to tell you a story about the good old days. You see, Manhattan wasn't always a dystopian nightmare of gentrification, extreme wealth, fro-yo shops and bank branches on ever corner, and an income of a hundred thousand dollars a year being considered poverty-level. No, it was once a dystopian nightmare of slums, out-of-control crime, open-air drug markets on every corner, and an income of twenty thousand dollars a year -- and an unhealthy level of fearlessness -- being enough to get you a brownstone in Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side. In the '70s and '80s, the only thing New York City was renowned for was being a dump, spoken of in the same terms in which we now speak of Detroit and Chicago at best and Aleppo at worst. In 1975, the city, deep in debt and constantly on the edge of bankruptcy, sought a bailout from the US government; their response led to the famous New York Daily News headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead". A blackout on a hot July day in '77 led to widespread rioting. The "Son of Sam" serial killer stalked the streets in '76 and '77, openly taunting the police who seemed impotent at catching him. Landlords in the Bronx, unable to pay their property taxes due to a combination of high inflation, rent control, and all of their tenants moving out to the suburbs, burned down their apartment buildings to collect the insurance money. A behavioral experiment involving rats in 1972 was often held up as proof that urban life went fundamentally against human nature. Tell somebody in 1981 that, within thirty years, neighborhoods like Hell's Kitchen and Williamsburg would be home to yuppies and hipsters and that the city would be ranked as having some of the lowest crime rates in the country, and you'd be laughed out of the room. For Americans in the '80s, the inner cities as a whole were irredeemable basket cases, and New York was the biggest one of all.

That was the backdrop against which John Carpenter made Escape from New York, a dystopian action film about the rest of America simply giving up on the Big Apple. Gritty, low-budget, and slow-paced, it's not the spectacle of violence that many other action films of that decade were, feeling more like a thriller at times than anything, as befitting a filmmaker who's as famous for making horror movies as he is for action flicks. It's the characters who make this film the classic that it is, not least of all Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken in what became the role that defined his career. If you go in looking for a non-stop, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride, you'll likely be disappointed at how long it takes to really get going, but if you go in expecting the intense, slow-burning fight for survival that it actually is, you will be mightily impressed.

In the far-off year of 1997, the US, the USSR, and China are at war. On his way to a peace conference in Hartford, the President (Donald Pleasance) finds himself and Air Force One hijacked by communist terrorists who crash-land it in the middle of Manhattan Island, which had been abandoned, walled off, and turned into an open-air, maximum-security prison back in 1988 as a response to out-of-control crime throughout the nation. The President is the sole survivor, having made it to his escape pod, but when a team goes to rescue him, they find that he's been kidnapped by the gang that runs the island prison. They're using him as a bargaining chip to negotiate their release, and they threaten to execute him if they send in the troops. With less than 24 hours until the summit, the government recruits S. D. "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell), a Special Forces veteran and war hero turned bank robber who was in the process of being sent to Manhattan as a prisoner, to instead go in there as an operative, rescuing the President from the self-proclaimed Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) and getting him to safety in exchange for a full pardon. Given that Snake is a dangerous criminal who is profoundly disillusioned with the government, and doesn't really care if the inmates mount the President's head on a pike, they implant a pair of micro-explosives in his neck that will blow open his carotid arteries in 23 hours in order to ensure his compliance. Inside, with the help of his former partner in crime Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), Brain's girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), and an old taxi driver who stubbornly refused to leave Manhattan even after it was sealed off (Ernest Borgnine), Snake sets out to rescue the President and survive all of the myriad horrors on Manhattan.

The story this film reminded me of the most wasn't another film, but a video game, Metal Gear Solid -- and not just because the protagonists of both are named Snake. (The game was paying homage to the movie.) Snake Plissken may be a badass Special Forces operative, but he's not a one-man army, and he has to spend most of his time sneaking around and avoiding the assorted convicts and crazies who can easily overwhelm him. When he gets shot in the leg with a crossbow, he's wounded for the rest of the film. It's less "power fantasy" and more "tactical espionage action", especially in the first half of the film, something that's most readily apparent during the rail yard scene where Snake is sneaking around the train while Brain and Maggie distract the guards. Snake spends most of the film wandering the streets, talking to people, and trying not to put himself in harm's way, with frequent cuts back to his superiors at the base on Liberty Island, led by Lee Van Cleef's police commissioner Bob Hauk, trying to guide Snake and later figure out what the hell is going on in there once they lose contact. The film is quite slow, almost plodding in some moments, especially in comparison to modern action films; while the action scenes do deliver, they are few in number. It feels more like a sci-fi version of a Western than an action film, something that the score (which, as is the norm for Carpenter, he composed himself) definitely lends itself to. What keeps it going, however, is the atmosphere. Carpenter makes Manhattan feel like a place where death may be lurking around every corner, aided by a great soundtrack and excellent visual design and special effects. The prison city may not feel much like New York specifically (imagine how awesome the deathmatch scene would be if it were in Madison Square Garden instead of what appeared to be a train station), but it did feel authentically gritty and bleak. The special effects are outstanding for such a low-budget film, done mostly with miniatures that still hold up in 2016; Snake's arrival on the island especially made use of a wire-frame model of the city that demonstrates a lot of ingenuity on Carpenter's part given that it was done before even rudimentary CGI became economically feasible for such a low-budget film.

And speaking of Snake, Kurt Russell's performance here is easily one of the chief elements making this film such a knockout. Channeling Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, Russell's Snake is a bitter, sarcastic hardass with a past that's heavily alluded to, such that we get a good sense of his backstory, but left deliberately vague in just the right places, allowing us to fill in the finer details. He's treated in-universe as somebody whose criminal exploits have made him a legend, a modern-day John Dillinger meets John Rambo, and Russell does a great job of selling the viewer on that. He's an asshole who doesn't give a shit, and his final "fuck you" to the President once it's all said and done simply made this film. There's a reason why he's become the prototype for a thousand grizzled, tough guy action movie heroes, and he's still one of the greatest of that bunch. The rest of the cast is a mix of Carpenter regulars (Adrienne Barbeau, Donald Pleasance) and character actors (Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef) who all do good work here. All of them are outshined by Russell, but given that we're talking about Snake Plissken here, that's not much of a fault, and each of them gets at least one great standout moment.

The Bottom Line:

Escape from New York may be a little rusty and slow nowadays, but the things that made it so much fun to watch in 1981 still hold up in 2016. Action fans will not only spot all the scenes and tropes that thirty-five years' worth of films have copied and homaged, they'll find a thrilling adventure in its own right.

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