In the mid-1970’s and early 80’s, John Carpenter was king. Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13…critics and audiences loved his films, and for good reason; John Carpenter is (or was) one helluva director. All of his films during the period from 1976-1988 have held up remarkably well. That’s not to say that they’re Oscar-worthy films, but Carpenter is undoubtedly an auteur; his creative presence can be felt throughout every one of his movies, marking them indelibly as unadulterated manifestations of his visions. And they’re an absolute blast to watch.
Escape from NY is no exception here, and although it’s not his most seminal film, it’s still a shining example of Carpenter’s talent and a terrible reminder of just how far he’s fallen with his most recent efforts.
The year is 1997. New York City has been converted into a maximum security prison, and, like an Ikea, once one goes in, it’s nearly impossible to find a way out. Newly-convicted ex-special forces soldier Snake Plissken is offered a deal when Air Force One is brought down over the city; find the President and his tape containing vital information on nuclear fusion, and receive a full pardon. There’s one catch, though; Snake only has twenty-four hours to complete his mission before the small chip in his neck explodes, severing his carotid arteries.
The plot is pretty straightforward, and though Carpenter claimed the movie was conceived in response to the Watergate Scandal (umm..what?), it’s pretty much pure escapism. Full of solid action, one shouldn’t expect to find anything profound here.
Plissken is the quintessential anti-hero, and Kurt Russell, who at the time was trying to create a new image for himself after starring in several family-friendly comedies, does a wonderful job with the character. He’s reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, although, whereas Eastwood’s cowboy is played with a cool nonchalance, Russell imbues Plissken with just a little more over-the-top bravado.
Atmosphere has always been one Carpenter’s strong suits, and the prison island of New York doesn’t disappoint It’s filthy, dangerous, and dark. The once glamorous skyscrapers now stand derelict and crumbling. Actually, that sounds a lot like parts of today’s New York. Still, the city is wonderfully envisioned, and it makes an intimidating obstacle to Snake’s goal.
Surprisingly, I found this to be one of the least suspenseful movies in the director’s filmography. The biggest missed opportunity involves the explosive chip inside Plissken. The fact that Snake has effectively been sentenced to death unless he can find the President is given some intermittent attention, but the overall film lacks that necessary sense of urgency; Snake rarely checks the clock, so it’s easy to forget that he’s is on a deadline.
It’s a small complaint and one that I can mostly overlook as the rest of Escape is so entertaining, but it keeps a good movie from being a great one. Carpenter has always had the enduring quality of being able to do far more with six million dollars (the budget of this film) than someone like, say, Michael Bay, is able to do with one hundred million.
Stars: **** (out of five)
Bob Hauk: You going to kill me now, Snake?
Snake Plissken: Not now. I’m too tired…Maybe later.
Bob Hauk: I’m about to kick your ass out of *the world*, war hero…
Recommended Viewing: Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing
So, I apologize for the second late post! No excuses for that! Tomorrow evening, I will post again! It’s David Bowie, so expect things to get freaky-deaky. Happy Mother’s Day!
Sunday, May 8th