Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Escape From New York (1981)

It's John Carpenter Week here at The Entertainment Junkie! Why? Well, why not? Basically, I realized that I had three of his movies in my Instant Queue on Netflix (which currently numbers 126 films), and decide to watch them one after another, as a sort of mini-marathon. So here's the schedule: Escape from New York today, The Thing tomorrow, and They Live on Thursday. So get excited.

What is there to say about Escape from New York, now in its 30th anniversary, that hasn't already been said a million times? The film's managed to maintain a cult audience for as many years, and for good reason: it may not be the classiest, savviest movie ever made, but it proudly revels in its own B-movie awesomeness. It starts with the simple prologue, which goes a long way in setting up the premise and setting without boring the audience to death with expository dialogue or elaborate setpieces: the neon-colored computer graphic had me nostalgic for a time when this was the norm, a time that has long since passed, it seems.

The year is 1997. Because of a monumental rise in crime, Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison in which criminals run rampant in their own dystopian society. Air Force One, which is carrying the President (Donald Pleasance) to a summit with the leaders of the Soviet Union and China to discuss peace negotiations, is hijacked and crashes in Manhattan. The prison's security head, Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), gives the job of retrieving the President to the best man he knows: Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), the eye-patch wearing, war-hero-turned-bank-robber ultimate badass. Plissken has 24 hours to retrieve the President, or else the explosives in his arteries will explode, killing him instantly. If he succeeds, he'll be granted complete amnesty. Of course, that means he'll have to go against/utilize a grand collection of characters, including Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), and the nefarious Duke (Isaac Hayes). 

Let's talk about what doesn't work first. The movie is without a doubt a product of its time, and it feels incredibly dated 30 years later. The tape cassettes, the cheesy Star Wars-lite graphics, the heavy synth score (written by Carpenter himself), and the presence of the World Trade Center all show the film's age, especially considering that the film assumes that most technology did not advance between 1981 and 1997. Of course, that's the risk one takes when setting a film in the future. And some of the characters are superfluous, such as the walking Troll doll:

But here's what does work: the film wastes no time with extraneous romance scenes or character backstory or any of the kinds of scenes you see in today's overstuffed blockbusters. Instead, this is pure action from front-to-back, with Plissken as the mysterious anti-hero you can't help but root for. Russell does a great job at macho posturing, and his decision to make Plissken talk in a raspy, seen-it-all whisper only adds to the machismo of the character. In fact, everyone plays their we're-having-a-ball notes perfectly, knowing full well how to act (or overact) in an action movie. And those action scenes: Carpenter knows how to stage a great action piece, and he keeps the pulse pounding through all 90 minutes of the film, with no time wasted. Like Plissken, he knows the film's mission, and isn't going to take any side roads to get through it.

There's supposedly a remake in the works, with Gerard Butler as Plissken. To which I say: boo, you Hollywood whores. There's no reason to update this film. Even if it is permanently stuck in its era, it's still a blast, a terrific action film that remembers what the audience wants: thrills, not frills.

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