Taut-muscled Russell helps John Carpenter break the mold in ‘Escape from New York’

December 10, 2012

In the not-so-distant future (1988), crime in the United States quadruples. The nation builds a 50-foot-high wall around Manhattan Island, mines the bridges and tunnels, and declares the borough the country’s only maximum security prison. There are no guards, and only one rule: Once you go in, you don’t come out.

In the distant future (1997), one day before a crucial wartime summit in Hartford, Conn., a hijacker crashes Air Force One into the prison. The president’s protective pod is located, but when U.S. Police Force troops land nearby, they find it empty.

A bizarre man with a hyena’s laugh walks up to Bob Hauk, the U.S. police commissioner. “You touch me, he dies,” the oddball says. “If you’re not in the air in 30 seconds, he dies. You come back in, he dies.” He reveals a severed finger bearing the president’s signet ring.

Hauk asks what the captors want. The oddball just counts down the seconds. Hauk orders his men back to the helicopters and pulls out.

The secretary of state urges Hauk to storm the island. Hauk refuses, certain that the president will be killed.

Fortunately, he has a plan. As fate would have it, one Snake Plissken, an ex-Special Forces war hero turned bank robber, is about to be imprisoned on Manhattan Island.

Hauk offers him a choice: Bring back the president and the vital recording contained in his briefcase and go free with a full pardon; refuse and live out your days in barbaric Manhattan.

Plissken’s a hard case, unmoved by Hauk’s feeble attempt to appeal to his patriotism. But, as he puts it, “I guess I go in one way or the other.”

He’s given one additional incentive to complete the mission successfully. Hauk has Plissken injected with two dissolving capsules containing small explosive charges that will detonate when exposed to his body heat. If Plissken returns with the president and the recording, the charges will be disabled; if not, well, he won’t have any more worries.

If you have much knowledge of science fiction or action movies, or if you took a fraction of a second to read the title of this blog post, you know that this is the gripping (and slightly hokey) setup to Escape from New York, John Carpenter’s bleak 1981 science fiction/action film. The premise is brilliant; some people shudder at the thought of setting foot in real-life New York, let alone the hell-hole Carpenter has concocted.

The execution is not quite as good as the premise, but it’s decent. The cast is fantastic, first of all. A buff Kurt Russell (with fabulous hair — inspiration for Fabio?) stars as Plissken, backed up by Lee Van Cleef as the steely Hauk; Harry Dean Stanton as Manhattan’s weaselly resident intellect, the Brain; a poised and statuesque Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, the Brain’s squeeze; Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York, Manhattan’s feudal bigwig and the chief bad guy; Ernest Borgnine as the eccentric Cabbie, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker who at once seems to be off his kilter and sharp as a tack; and Donald Pleasence as the (unnamed) not entirely steady president.

The sets are appropriately dank and dreary. (Except for some very brief shots, none featuring any main characters, the film was not shot in New York. Several burned-out blocks in East St. Louis, Ill., were filmed for exterior shots, per the Internet Movie Database.) Except for Plissken’s guns, the tech looks either not futuristic or clunky and unconvincing. See, for instance, the cassette tape that serves as co-Macguffin along with the president, the truly massive cell phone that Hauk clutches to his head at one point and the different electronic wristbands that the president and Plissken sport.

The story plays out in more or less straightforward fashion but strives (and mostly succeeds) at avoiding action clichés. Plissken is a badass, yes, but he’s also quite human and vulnerable. After his leg is wounded, he limps for the rest of the film. He also spends a significant amount of the time he has to complete his mission — although a more modest chunk of running time — in captivity.

Plissken assembles a small band of allies to help him with his mission, but their loyalty isn’t particularly high. Still, his associates make a few key assists. Plissken ends up doing virtually no shooting of his own, interestingly.

Much of what the script does — having a badly wounded hero, leaving much of the gunnery to others — subverts standard heroic narratives. That happens in perhaps the most electrifying sequence in the film, which occurs early on as an intrigued and then frightened Plissken witnesses the subterranean Crazies surface en masse. I won’t tell you exactly what happens, but the anti-hero ends up running for his life after finding trouble underfoot.

Unfortunately, although this is considered a classic sci-fi/action flick in some circles, I can only give it a tepid recommendation. As taut as the beginning and ending of the movie are, the middle seemed awfully slack to me. The movie’s dystopian vision is interesting, yes, and some of the characters shine, but the whole seems slightly less than the sum of its parts. Part of the problem is the limited budget: The minimal special effects are just that, and the finale, while dramatic, lacks spectacle, just like all of the action sequences.

I’d like to see the sequel to Escape from New York, which was set in Los Angeles, even though it was widely panned, out of curiosity how Carpenter and Russell tried to develop their premise. And I’m glad I saw the original Escape. Unfortunately, I’m mostly glad because I filled in a gap in my knowledge of science fiction cinema, not because I really enjoyed the movie.

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