Friday, August 7, 2009

Carpenter's Tools: Escape From New York

I still can't believe how well I responded to Halloween, but for my money Carpenter hit his stride in the '80s. After the fun but staid Halloween follow-up The Fog, Carpenter broke out of the horror pigeonhole for a post-apocalyptic popcorn movie, one that married the talent for suspense he'd worked up over his previous two features with the bizarro shootout of Assault on Precinct 13. It's not exactly a Hawks-like genre leap, but it is one of the finest action flicks to come out of that testosterone- and cocaine-tinged haze of the '80s.

From the start, you can tell that Carpenter isn't taking himself too seriously. Set in the then-near future 1997, Escape From New York stinks to high heaven of '80s. Working, naturally, with a tight budget, Carpenter does not even attempt to make his New York look at all futuristic: the most discernible change in this city (which is actually bombed out and fetid) from its contemporary depictions in '70s cinema is the presence of large concrete walls around Manhattan.

In gloriously over-the-top fashion, Carpenter sets the film at the tail end of World War III; both America and the Soviets teeter on the edge after years of vicious warfare, and America must deal with massive civil turbulence. To deal with the massive spike in crime, the government coverts the wrecked New York into a giant prison: anyone sent there automatically receives life imprisonment, and various prisoner gangs have established controls over various sectors of the metropolis. On his way to a peace summit to end the war, the president (Donald Pleasence) ejects over New York in a pod when an American insurgent group hijacks Air Force One.

The government cannot move into the city without inadvertently killing the president, so police commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) deputizes Snake Plissken, an infamous ex-special forces operative now on his way to New York. Hauk instructs the laconic, venomous prisoner to find and extract the president before the planned summit meets. If he succeeds, he wins a pardon; if he fails to protect the president or to get him out before the summit, tiny charges injected into his carotid arteries will explode.

Had nothing else gone right in Escape From New York, the casting would likely have ensured it a long shelf life. Van Cleef excels in the role Pleasence played in Halloween, that of the primary source of exposition. His deep-voiced growl and stoicism give an air of credence to what easily could have been absurd lines. Pleasence himself doesn't have much to do, but in his one or two scenes of any substantive dialogue he shapes his terrified president into an uncaring, selfish man who seems so surprised by the horrors of New York likely because he never wasted his time learning the conditions of the prison. Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau all play characters wacky enough to live in this strange world, but they all just manage to keep their feet on the ground while their heads move through the clouds.

Above all else, though, stands one man: Kurt Russell. Then a fading star who'd known success throughout the '70s as one of Disney's more bankable young talents, Russell met Carpenter through the made-for-television film Elvis (which I shall review along with Someone's Watching Me! when I can get my hands on them). Carpenter went to bat for Russell, a has-been up against studio recommendations such as Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones, and he cemented the B-movie equivalent of the Scorsese-De Niro match-up (or perhaps one of them alongside the Raimi-Campbell pairing). Russell crafts an iconic anti-hero, one who rasps his lines because he can't stand to speak to anyone: nearly all of his lines contain some angry dismissal of the person speaking to him. Russell plays the part to perfection, making Snake sufficiently intimidating and believably unstoppable while constantly placing his tongue firmly in cheek. The Russell-Carpenter pairing gave way to some shamelessly campy fare, but it worked because Russell knew how to toe the line like a master.

But the world Carpenter constructs around Russell and the other actors is equally captivating. Comparisons between New York and jungles have existed for decades, but Carpenter's dystopian iteration not only feels like one but looks the part. The various gangs pitted against Snake recall that familiar Carpenter trope, the one where the enemies of the film possess vaguely supernatural qualities. The residents of the prison have lived there so long that some devised means of generating power, re-fitting cars, even creating their own weapons, and each carry certain traits. The most memorable, of course, are the subway-dwelling "Crazies," zombie-like madmen who burst out of the ground and slice their way through all in their path.

Snake's adventures through this hell reflect both Carpenter's firm grasp on tension as well as his surprising gift for comedy: in the scene that introduces Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine's goofy grin is already enough to get you smiling), he cuts to show what's entertaining our friendly driver so: a crude musical theater performed by male inmates in drag. As Snake moves into the backrooms of the theater tracking the president's beacon, the scene changes to one of mounting unease and horror, only to end with another comic note. Snake must eventually face the "Duke" of New York (Isaac Hayes), only for him to pull up in a Cadillac with actual chandeliers as hood ornaments. It's just a fun gag, but I'd like to think that Carpenter was poking fun at the ostentatious glamor of late-'70s/early-'80s life, and I've never not laughed when the Duke pulls up in that ridiculous vehicle.

Carpenter uses tracking shots far more than in his previous efforts, presumably because a bigger budget ($6 million must have seemed a fortune to the low-budget auteur who made the most successful independent movie in history three years earlier) allowed him the use of a Steadicam. The moving shots contain all of the composition and unsettling quality of his prolonged static shots, and they add a level of thrill that his previous action flick, Assault on Precinct 13, never had.

Carpenter actually wrote the script for Escape From New York in 1976. Its pitch-black, violent take on post-Nixon distrust, however, didn't sell with the studios (and these are the people who financed Taxi Driver, for God's sake), especially when the only film he had under his belt was Dark Star. Perhaps the weirdness of the script threw the executives, as the political undertones of the film are not nearly as pronounced as countless films of the mid-'70s. Its ending does carry a tinge of anarchy, but one I find far funnier than it is political. I still think it's interesting that Carpenter wrote it (along with Nick Castle, who would play Michael Myers in Halloween) in 1976, as I can now understand why Escape feels so much like a bridge between his first three features -- it's got the strange, comic sci-fi of Dark Star, the pulse-pounding action of Assault and the heart-stopping suspense of Halloween.

I really don't know what to say about Escape From New York: a threadbare plot, goofy characters, absurd black comedy and bizarre science fiction elements could distract a casual moviegoer separately, and when Carpenter throws them all together it's a wonder he didn't alienate everyone. But, for me, it's a classic, one that contains all the film quotations you'd expect from a film school student (everyone telling Snake, "I heard you were dead" is a straight lift from the John Wayne vehicle Big Jake) as well as the formalist composition. The director gets marvelous performances from his actors because he gets all of them on the same page before shooting: everyone hams it up, but in a perversely plausible manner. The film also boasts Carpenter's finest score, tense but often playful without losing its edge moving between the two moods, and his finest direction.

Why would anyone attempt to remake this? I can sort of understand the desire to go back to Assault on Precinct 13 or The Fog (Carpenter himself helped the latter get off the ground, as he was dissatisfied with the low production values of the original). Those films are dated, if still readily enjoyable, and in the case of Assault it's hard to cite unoriginality when Carpenter so heavily mined Rio Bravo in the first place. I can even understand Rob Zombie's Halloween, as Carpenter's version is such a landmark that it's only natural that some young pup would put his spin on it. (And Zombie's Halloween is such an interesting take on a psycho that it likely would have been a great modern horror film if he didn't have to eventually get to the plot points of the original). Escape From New York, on the other hand, really hasn't dated, despite its '97 setting and its depiction of a hellish future as only slightly different aesthetically than the present. Its madcap combination of various moods and genres, combined with its crazy characters, do not present an easy opportunity for franchising -- case in point, watch the critically panned, commercial bomb Escape From L.A. (which I haven't seen and am currently dreading). I cannot pretend to be unbiased though; Escape From New York made me a John Carpenter fan, and I've yet to tire revisiting it nearly a dozen viewings later.

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