Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Second Age Review Backlog 3: Escape From New York

John Carpenter is one of those directors who I've felt has never gotten the recognition he deserves as a genuinely good director. Part of this has to be attributed to the fact that when you boil a lot of stuff away, most of his concepts are fairly simple. (Another part is Ghosts of Mars. Don't ask.) Think about. The premise for The Thing is simply an alien invasion, a not-at-all overdone concept. Halloween is simply another 'Psycho stalker' movie, again a rather overdone concept. But therein lies his strength, for he strengthens his simple premises with solid directing and scripting, fairly good acting and a real eye for setting and visuals.

Take for example the movie in question. From a conceptual point of view, making New York a massive oversized prison is brilliant. It allows you to bring several different forms of enemies forward, from the vicious underground dwellers, to the organized gang members. It allows for epic action scenes to take place alongside relevant social commentary. It give you fantastical visuals, allowing you to subvert places that have entered into the collective unconscious of the entire culture and thereby make the decay even more disturbing. With wide streets, tight alleys and buildings of all size, it allows you to combine dizzying heights, scenes of quiet dread, desperate claustrophobia and large scale action scenes without any of it feeling forced in. And it is in this conceptually brilliant place we find the setting of one of John Carpenter's best films,Escape From New York.

Quick to the details. In the future (or technically the past now), crime has risen by 400 percent. In order to compensate, the US has turned all of New York city into a large scale walled of prison, dumping prisoners inside and keeping them there, letting them sort their own business out. On his way to a peace conference with the Soviet Union and China, the President's plane is highjacked and he is forced to eject over New York with information vital to the peace talks. The prisoners take him hostage, and the US government has 24 hours before the USSR and China leave. They elect to send in ex-Military turned criminal, Snake Pliskin (Kurt Russel) to rescue him. Snake, by the by, is one of the most manly men in cinema, a list headed by Indiana Jones, with Snake sitting comfortably between Ash Williams from the Evil Dead trilogy and the Latina chick from Aliens.

Moving from plot to technical stuff, the movie as a whole is beautifully made. The music guy does an good job, using what I call the Halloween trick of having a theme that is extraordinarily effective while being extremely simple. The cinematography is rather excellent, short of a couple directorial choices here and there. The lighting guy deserves special mention, as he does a fabulous job throughout, especially in the quiet disconcerting scenes.

Character designs are all over the map, but it all fits nicely together. The director is clearly taking full advantage of the creative license the setting gives him. Most of the inmates we see are the hobo gang members, following the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) who has, no joke, chandeliers on the front of his car and a disco ball hanging from the rearview mirror. A couple of brief asides are devoted to the neutral hobos, mostly what you expect from that particular concept, and a couple encounters with a group of underground dwellers, who remain mostly unseen throughout their scenes, making them all the more horrible in our minds.

The writing is where the film slips a tiny bit, but thankfully not in any way that could damage the film. The story is unique and intriguing especially for it's genre, and most of the dialogue is well written, except for some awkwardly delivered villain lines from the Cop who sent Snake in. Most of the problems come from the characters. Aside from Snake, only 2 characters, a slightly insane cab driver (Ernest Borgnine) and an intelligent man who runs things from the background (Harry Dean Stanton) really get any defining moments. The Duke of New York in particular is rather one note, never really moving beyond simply sending wave after wave of gang members at Snake.

The acting averages out as above average. Isaac Hayes gives it his all, but lacking anything really to do with his character, all he can do is stand around, giving some real presence to a villain who otherwise would have threatened to be boring. On the heroes side, Russel and Borgnine are the standouts, Russel doing an extremely well done and vicious spin on the the generic hardass, while Borgnine does a fantastic crazy-by-conditioning. In some of the darker moments, we get the feeling the crazy might be a necessary coping technique for him. Which is good for me, I love my comic sidekicks to have depth.

Stanton as the smart guy (unironically named Brain) does a solid intelligent backup which picks up speed during the 3rd act when he and his lady friend start getting involved. His lady is the closest thing the group of heroes has to a disappointment. She mostly hangs on Brain's arm throughout all the action, until a very nice "Charge of the Light Brigade" moment from her near the end. The President is barely more than a macguffin to drive the plot until the finale, so we'll skip over him, shall we?

The action is well directed and enjoyable, allowing Snake to be a fantastic badass, without ever pushing the laws of physics anywhere near the point where it might throw us from the experience. The special effects are good for it's age (most of it being done with actual props and sets, rather than CGI) and is easily acceptable for this time, though those of you who are expecting every action to have Avatar graphics are probably going to walk home disappointed.

At the end of the day, Escape From New York is not an intelligent, thought provoking piece of cinema, but it's very clearly not trying to be. What it is however is a fantastic time at the movies, and as much as I'm a culture snob, I recognize that often times, that's what you wants. Those of you who want your action movie to be "HOLY FUCKING SHIT DID YOU SEE THAT GODDAMN EXPLOSION?" are not going to enjoy this. But if you like your action movies to be exciting and intense, while still having time to be well made, then this is the movie for you. It's not the most intelligent movie in the world (or even in the works of John Carpenter) but it understands what it's trying to be. And what it's trying to be is an enjoyable time at the movies, and at that it is a rousing success. So you go see it, and I'll see you next time.

Next on Second Age Reviews: Jaws

Elessar is a 20 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he still can't decide whether he likes Snake Plissken or Solid Snake more.

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