Escape from New York, John Carpenter, 1981
Screened at the Star and Shabby Cinema
Set in 1997, so the opening intro voice informs us, the entirety of New York has been turned into an open prison incarcerating the very worst of criminal society. Give us a break John. Sure the place was run down in the seventies and had many social problems, but are we expected to believe that Wall Street is going to relocate from all that prime real estate without a fight. I don’t think so.
So what is the story. Well it can be sumarised in the title “I’m a celebrity. Get me out of here” Following the hijacking of the US presidential airplane by a group of suicidal freedom fighters, with the Pres and his entourage on board, it is crashed into the hell hole that New York has now become. Ideas for 9/11 here folks? The Pres survives by ejecting in his escape pod, a rather unconvincing red egg shaped module which ejects from the doomed plane, but, unfortunately for him, into a chaos in which as head of state he has the honour to preside over. Hint of schardenfreude here?
Being the indispensable person that all right thinking, read brain washed, Americans believe him to be he must be rescued at all costs from this hell hole. Surely Mr Carpenter the story could have been more interesting having him try to assert his authority in what still is his rightful domain and let the outside world go to hell.
Enter the rescue party, organised by Hauk, Governor of this prison, and one assumes responsible for the lack of humane conditions which exist and Snake, ex war hero turned villain, but whose skills as a infiltrator into enemy territory has been successfully tested in Leningrad, so presumably we were at war with the USSR. Although given the proliferation of nuclear weapons had such a war occurred there is likely to have been little call for the services of Snake, before he turned bad.
Casting Kurt Russel as Snake Plissken and Lee Van Cleef as Hauk, Carpenter appears to be trying to recreate the Eastwood –Van Cleef relationship of a Few Dollars More. However this fails to materialise as there is limited interaction between the two roles to establish any rapport between them. Russel however does give it a go, paying lip service homage to Eastwood by hissing his lines through gritted teeth in the initial dialogues with Van Cleef. Perhaps this was the snake element of his character, although much later it is revealed that he has a tattoo of a hooded cobra, which is a more likely reason for the appellation.
Offered a pardon for all his past crimes, does that include all those killings in Russia on behalf of the state?, of course not, he was an American hero then, Snake agrees to rescue of the Pres from the nick. However there is a catch he has to do it in 24 hrs because the Pres goes on air then.
To keep him to the deadline he is provided with an incentive. A biological inserts in the neck which will explode in 24 hrs unless neutralised and a fancy digital watch which will tell him how long he has to do it.
Flying in on a glider he lands on the twin towers, so that’s why the presidential plan didn’t target them, using some nice green graphics little more sophisticated than the original Space invaders graphics of those days.
Dressed in Rambo style, minus the bandana, he shorts out some electrical wires to get the lift working and descends into the darkness, well they had power to the twin towers lifts but no street lighting.
How does he find the Pres. So, as well as being chained to his brief case the Pres has a gadget on his wrist the size of an alarm clock which transmits his location as well as his pulse. Snake with the latest technology, the size of a house brick, has a Pres locator. Come on John, even the Men from UNCLE had miniturised gadgets.!!! The loudest laugh resonated from the audience when Hauk picked up what used to be called a walkie-talkie hand set, twice as large as ever the real thing was. Even the weaponry looked like 70s hardware with scope sights attached. When it comes to futuristic gadgetry Carpenter falls flat on his face.
Following various escapades and escapes from the Crazies, a tribe of troglodytes who live in the sewer systems, Snake meets Cabbie, Ernie Borgnine, a greasy Yellow Cab jockey, at the camp, take that literally, concert party in a run down theatre and is taken to meet Brains, a former accomplice in crime and Maggie, who dresses in what appears to be a satin night gown and has a 70 porno star hair perm the main thrust of her character being the prominent embonpoint and generous cleavage. Both of whom agree to help in his rescue of the Pres.
The Dook, [Issac Hayes] that’s the Duke to you or I, is the evil black overlord of the prison with a nice line in 19th century cavalry jackets , references to Idi Amin and the Emperor of the Central African Republic who has captured the Pres with a view to getting the prison more open to the outside world. Is Carpenter making a statement about the taste for the gaudy and taudry by blacks, particularly when he shows the Duke driving his car adorned with chandeliers on the front wings and a disco glitter ball suspended in the front wind screen?
Donald Pleasence, playing the Pres, looks as myopic as he did in his part as the prison of war master forger in “The Great Escape”, only that he has been on a course of steroids. One could almost hear the echo of those famous words he uttered in that film, “I can see, I can see perfectly. Take me with you, I won’t be any trouble”, as he pleads to be included with the escapees.
True to Carpenter’s plots there is the obligatory overlong fight scene. This time a gladiatorial combat ,reminiscent of the Coliseum of ancient Rome, between Snake and the Duke’s champion. Not content with mere baseball bats to knock the shite out of each other the have to up the tempo with base ball bats with six inch nails sticking from the end. Needless to say the bad guy, who looks like a cross between a Victorian strong man and Genghis Khan, gets nailed by Snake with one of those six inch nails.
Time is running out for snake as the glances at his personal timer tell us and he needs to get the Pres back to the outside world to get those explosives neutralised which following the demise of all the other characters, bar the Pres, he manages to do with only 2 seconds to spare.
Phew! A close shave that. Which is what the Pres is having as Snake gets his thanks and a job offer from Hauk.
So did the Pres have a change of heart over the conditions in the American penal system and vow to improve them. You betcha he didn’t.
What message did the film make about US attitudes to criminals and their reform. . Lock em up, throw away the key and let them rot in hell
Is the US President second only to God. You betcha he is and like God isn’t in the habit of getting his own hands dirty.
Cue credits to the end of to film to the sound of Carpenters’ music “Its Yesterday Once More” but not like I knew it John.