Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1981)

7. Escape from New York

“Escape from New York” is widely considered a classic of eighties action cinema. Certainly, a film has reached a certain iconic level when it spawns low-budget Italian knock-offs. In all honesty, I’ve never been a huge fan. While the film is solid in all regards, there are a handful of flaws present that prevent me from loving it.

I’ve never considered Carpenter a strictly horror filmmaker. His reputation as a master of the genre is due to the importance of his contributions, not because he’s worked solely in it. Quality, not quantity. “Escape from New York” is not a horror film… And yet. Rewatching the director’s films, I’m starting to see horror elements creeping into all of John’s work. “Dark Star” has got an alien in it. “Assault on Precinct 13” is kind of a horror film. Similarly, “Escape from New York” has some horrific elements.

The premise is pure popcorn punchline: In the future, New York has been transformed into a city-wide prison. The President has gone down in this New York. Snake, former war hero and current criminal, are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president? There’s nothing blatantly horrific in that set-up. There are insane, probably cannibalistic rovers that come out of the subway at night, attacking people. Like the gang members in “Assault,” these beings are faceless and mindless. The movie relies on occasional horror set-dressing in service of thrills. Most notably is a brief moment where, accompanied by a sharp loud musical cue, a figure leaps across in the background.

However, this isn’t the real reason “Escape from New York” feels a bit like a horror film. It’s all about the atmosphere. We see daylight in New York maybe twice. The nights are very dark, filled with pulsing blues and lingering greens. The towering skyscrapers seemed to form a close-off valley, leaving little room to run for cover. The bad guy’s main henchman, a dude named Romero with feathery, anime hair, even reminds me of Klaus Kinski or “The Exorcist”’s Captain Howdy. (I doubt Carpenter intended that one, though.) By this point, Carpenter knows what he is doing. He handles the action well, moving beyond the “pointing guns at people who then fall down” style displayed in “Precinct 13.” The climatic car chase across the bomb laden bridge is probably the film’s best action.

I feel almost ashamed to say this. The real reason I’m not crazy about “Escape from New York?” Snake doesn’t impress me. Kurt Russell is awesome and is frequently most awesome when directed by John Carpenter. He has an eye-patch and carries big machine guns, wears leather and combat boots. Snake slings one-liners almost as much as he slings bullets. Russell is doing a straight-up Clint Eastwood impersonation, which on paper sounds very entertaining.

So why don’t I love you, Snake? A couple possible explanations. It’s a thin character. Snake doesn’t have an inner-life. He’s only in it for himself and doesn’t seem to evolve much over the course of the film. He’s not all that likable. Some of his relations with the supporting cast seems to melt his heart but only a little bit. Neither of those things should matter when it comes to action heroes. Arnold and Jason Statham don’t have an inner life. But those guys are funny, likable, bad-ass. And… Snake isn’t? The character is supposed to be sarcastic and hilarious. Yet all the actual laughs in the movie belong to other characters. While there’s plenty of shooting and violence, he’s not that great at fighting. He always seems very close to loosing fights but not in a way that lends realism. Only twice in the movie does Snake really seem like a bad-ass, once when he gets the drop on two goons and another when he finally beats his burly adversary. The character’s final move is supposed to be awesome and funny but comes off as extremely petty. Less like a bad-ass lone ranger and more like a teenager miffed at mom and dad. Russell doesn’t elevate the character either, instead mostly sticking to grumbled, gruff grunts.

It’s a good thing the supporting cast is packed solid with awesome character actors. My favorite is the late, great Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie. Despite the nihilistic location, Cabbie is unusually upbeat. He loves music, first appearing in a musical theater and always blasting big band music from his cab cassette player. The guy is even smiling and happy when tossing Molotov cocktails at trios of Crazies. While it would have been easy to read the character as unhinged, Borgnine is so naturally likable. He establishes Cabbie as the perfect comic relief in the film.

Donald Pleasence plays the American President, British accent intact, on much the same wavelength as Dr. Loomis. While Loomis is high-strung because of the evil around him, the President is nervous and shaken apart by his current situation. Pleasence does nervous fantastically, and his stuttering and shouting is frequently hilarious. His full-on, machine gun aided breakdown at the climax is even better. Harry Dean Stanton plays the back-stabbing, snake-like Brain, who has a history with Snake. Once again, Carpenter casts well, as Stanton is an expert at this kind of part. You’re never sure of Brain’s alliance but, with the way he dislikes his real name of “Harold” or how he obviously cares about the other characters, shows a hidden vulnerability and integrity. Adriene Barbeau, though her eighties perm is distracting, certainly looks good in a very low-cut dress. She too has hidden depths, loving Brain in a subtle way, not to mention being quite adapt with a gun.

Isaac Hayes doesn’t give the Duke of New York, the film’s villain, much deepness. However, the Duke is cool, primarily because Hayes was just an awesome, funky guy. The chandeliers on his limo’s headlights pushes the guy almost into pimp parody. The Duke shows cool sadism. Lee Van Cleef, Tom Atkins, and Charles Cypher do their regular things in small supporting parts but they’re good at it and are, perhaps, underutilized.

I think, perhaps, if I bought into Snake’s awesomeness, I would love “Escape from New York” as much as many others do. I even think Carpenter’s score is one of his weaker efforts. There’s a lot to like about the film however, as it’s campy and well-paced. I like the movie but don’t love it. [Grade: B]

No comments: