Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Film Appreciation - Call Me Snake

Cody Hamman goes into the future, all the way to 1997, to show Film Appreciation for John Carpenter's Escape from New York.

Following a title sequence set to some of the best music of writer/director John Carpenter's composing career (in association with Alan Howarth), a narration by Jamie Lee Curtis, accompanied by onscreen text and computer generated images, provides the set-up for the world of Escape from New York:

In 1988, the crime rate in the U.S. rose by 400%. To deal with the resulting huge influx of convicted criminals, the entire island of Manhattan was evacuated of citizens and turned into one large maximum security prison. A containment wall was built around the island, all bridges and waterways mined. Police officers are encamped around the wall, and the base of security is on Liberty Island. If any prisoners attempt to escape from Manhattan, they are blown out of the water. Literally.

The year is now 1997 and things are running smoothly at the Manhattan prison. The latest convict to arrive on Liberty Island for processing before being incarcerated is Snake Plissken, a decorated war hero who turned to crime after his service was complete. His past honors aren't likely to earn him any favors here.

Then, Air Force One flies into the area's restricted air space, having been hijacked by a member of the revolutionary group the National Liberation Front of America, who plans to kill the (oddly British) President of the United States as a "blow to the racist police state". The plane crashes into a building on the island prison, but the President actually survives the crash in his escape pod... Only to almost immediately be taken hostage by prisoners.

If a security force were to go into Manhattan, the President could be executed immediately by whoever is holding him captive. The plan is for a stealth infiltration by a one man rescue squad - and since Snake Plissken had experience with such things during his time in the Special Forces, the Police Commissioner makes him an offer: if he rescues the President, he'll receive a full pardon. Snake doesn't care about this situation, his suggestion is "Get a new President", but for a pardon, and since he'll be going to the prison no matter what, he decides to do the job.

Snake has to get the President off the island in time to address a summit with China and the Soviet Union about nuclear fusion, giving him less than 23 hours to locate the nation's leader and successfully rescue him. To make sure he doesn't just try to escape, two capsules are injected into his neck, where they lodge in his arteries and begin to dissolve. They'll dissolve completely in 22 hours, setting off heat sensitive charges within their core, tiny explosions that will blow Snake's arteries open and kill him within seconds. He'll have to make it back to the security base with the President in time to get the charges neutralized with x-rays.

With time ticking down toward his death, Snake makes a nearly disastrous entry into the city and sets out on his search for the President. Over the course of his rescue mission, he'll have to overcome obstacles and adversaries like Native Americans acting like they're right out of an old Western, cannibalistic underground dwellers (but not mutant C.H.U.D.s), assorted crazies and criminals, a modern gladiator match, and ultimately go up against the powerful gang leader who has the President in his custody and has big plans for the big man.

The idea John Carpenter and his co-writer Nick Castle (who also played Michael Myers/"The Shape" in the original Halloween) put together for this movie is a genius one, a perfectly simple action story occurring within an intriguingly high concept sci-fi facade. Although the film was primarily shot in St. Louis, Missouri, the desolate streets of the city, strewn with garbage and wreckage, stand in entirely convincingly for the futuristic, closed off Manhattan. Wider shots of the island city are brought to life through the use of some wonderful matte paintings and miniatures. As often gets mentioned, future "king of the world" filmmaker James Cameron was a member of the art department on this film and was director of photography for the visual effects. Its primary cinematographer was the great Dean Cundey, the man behind the camera on such films as Halloween 1, II, and III, Rock 'n' Rock High School, The Fog, Jaws of Satan, The Thing, the Back to the Future trilogy, Big Trouble in Little China, Road House, Jurassic Park... the list of his accomplishments goes on and on.

Overall, the greatest thing about Escape from New York is the performance of Kurt Russell as the tough, taciturn Snake Plissken. Snake is the definition of an anti-hero, he doesn't care about anything other than himself and his own agenda. He sees horrible things being done on his way through Manhattan and just passes them by, it's none of his business, he has a very specific goal.

The fact that Snake comes off as the most interesting character in the room even when sharing scenes with the Police Commissioner played by Lee Van Cleef is truly a testament to how awesome Russell is in this role.

The rest of the cast is pretty impressive as well, with Tom Atkins and Charles Cyphers working alongside Van Cleef in the security base, one time Blofeld Donald Pleasence as the POTUS, Ernest Borgnine as a Manhattan cabbie, Harry Dean Stanton as an old acquaintance of Snake's called Brain, and Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing) as Brain's main squeeze. As the villain of the piece, a man who calls himself the Duke of New York and is chauffeured around the prison streets in a car decked out with exterior chandeliers, is musician/Shaft composer/Truck Turner himself, Isaac Hayes.

It didn't take long after its successful theatrical release in 1981 for Escape from New York to start being considered a classic of the sci-fi/action genre. I heard about it for years before I was ever able to see it, since there were no copies of it available in my town. From plot descriptions, it always sounded awesome to me. I was a fan of Kurt Russell from watching movies like Big Trouble in Little China, Overboard, and Tango & Cash throughout my childhood, and I was a big fan of John Carpenter because of Halloween, so I knew I had to watch EFNY as soon as I got a chance to. I was so sure I was going to enjoy this movie that I had an EFNY poster hanging on my bedroom wall before I ever saw it.

When Escape from New York finally did reach my town on VHS in the mid-'90s, I rented it immediately. I had heard a lot of hype about it, I had built it up in my mind, and when I finally watched it, I was not disappointed. It is a really great movie and Russell as Snake is just so... damn... cool.

After I had gotten my EFNY fix, I set out to get various family members hooked on it as well. Everyone I showed the movie to enjoyed it, I got them into this world and the Snake character so that everyone was prepared for, and looking forward to, the release of the long-awaited sequel Escape from L.A. soon after.

For the eighteen years it's been since I was first able to see it, Escape from New York has been an important part of my movie collection, and Snake Plissken will always be ranked among my top favorite screen badasses.

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