February 12, 2012

Escape From New York

John Carpenter's trash-art action yarn Escape From New York (1981) has two things going for it: Kurt Russell's bad-ass performance as Snake Plissken, and a gritty, pulpy atmosphere that transcends its paper-thin storyline. The film is set in the near future, where Manhattan Island has been transformed into the country's lone maximum security prison. (Presumably there was low interest in preserving the Big Apple's iconic cultural monuments and history.) When the President's plane goes down inside the premises, the government makes a deal with a war criminal, Snake Plissken, to rescue the President in exchange for his freedom.

This was Carpenter's fifth feature film, coming off the phenomenal success of Halloween (1978) and the moderate success of The Fog (1980), but more closely related to his cult thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Both Escape and Assault have a certain neo-Western apathy for cinematic niceties, an attitude Carpenter seems to apply to all his movies. He's in love with those 1950s Westerns by Howard Hawks and he seems to have embedded into his movies a sort of synthetic sense of Los Angeles cool, even when the setting isn't L.A.

The problem with Escape From New York is that it never builds enough momentum to sustain its intriguing but problematic story. The idea feels like something contrived by a 12-year-old kid. It has wonderful cinematic possibilities, but Carpenter seems to have written this in a hurry, or perhaps when he decided to make this movie (he had written the screenplay years earlier) he didn't revise it. There are kinks in the plot, most embarrassingly the incredulous prospect of getting all the law-abiding Manhattanites to give up their jobs and their homes and their lives and leave the city to the underworld of criminals that inherit it in this movie.

The film itself looks like a comic book, and it's this dark, guttery, gloomy, nightmare-metropolis  production design that really makes Escape From New York a fun diversion, despite its shortcomings. You can tell the film's money pool wasn't too deep, and in a way, the shoestring budget works for it. It's a throwback to the  B movies that probably made Carpenter want to make movies when he was a kid.

The film was shot by Dean Cundey, who did the cinematography for several Carpenter films, and produced by long-time Carpenter collaborator Debra Hill. It moves along without much sense, but you find ways to enjoy yourself anyway.

The cast of stock characters, poorly fleshed out (such a shame, considering the collection of talent assembled), includes Adrienne Barbeau (whose wonderful comic abilities are barely used), Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Atkins, and Charles Cyphers.

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