Escape from New York (review)

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Like much of the oeuvre of hackmeister supreme John Carpenter, Escape from New York is a far better film if you leave the gloss of nostalgia around it intact. Translation: I remember it being a lot better than it actually is. So if you have fond memories of a long-ago viewing of EFNY, I’d suggest not ruining them by revisiting the film again.

And it’s not that I’m holding EFNY to a particularly high standard. This is a film, like everything Carpenter has done with the exception of Starman, that is schlock: pure, simple, unabashed, unapologetic schlock. But I recall it as being schlock that was a helluva lot more fun than it is.
Carpenter’s got a fairly dim view of humanity, if the grim darkness — visual and metaphorical — of many of his movies and his continual casting of Kurt Russell is anything to judge by. Here, the year is 1997, the United States appears to have become something of a fascist state after a horrendous crime wave, and the only maximum security prison in the country is Manhattan island, its walled-off perimeters patrolled by jackbooted thugs known as the U.S. Police Force. (They fly around in black helicopters, the NWO conspiracy-minded among you should note.) Enter Kurt Russell (3000 Miles to Graceland, Soldier), as Snake Plissken, sneering, muscle-bound, barely articulate, antiauthoritarian thug, arriving at the Manhattan prison as a new inmate just as the Nazis in charge need the help of someone like him: Air Force One has crashed on the island, the President of the United States is missing, and the fate of humanity rides on getting him off the island safely in the next 24 hours. Plissken, ex-Special Forces (of course), is just the man for the job. But how much of a survivor can he be if his life of crime got him caught? Who cares? He’s got a bad-ass attitude, a cool, dangerous-sounding name, and a tattoo of a snake around his navel and reaching down below the waistline of his tight trousers who knows how far. Plus, he’s pumped up, unlike the island’s commandant, played by the scrawny, chickenesque Lee Van Cleef, whose first attempt at rescuing the president failed. Probably because he didn’t have an eye patch like Snake’s.

Heavy weaponry is deployed to Manhattan, Snake’s thick skull and machine gun chief among them. Snake runs around a lot and meets Adrienne Barbeau’s tits and some people even more unpleasant than Lee Van Cleef, like Ernest Borgnine (GATTACA, Marty) and Harry Dean Stanton (The Pledge, The Green Mile). Donald Pleasence as the president isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, either. In the end, they escape over the 69th Street bridge, which doesn’t exist. Was the 59th Street bridge too much a diva, wouldn’t leave its trailer, wanted script approval, or what? It’s mysterious.

Made in 1981 but set in 1997, EFNY contains some howlers, like “cell phones” the size of cinderblocks and lines like “We telexed Washington,” which probably sounded cool and futuristic in 1981. And there is some intentionally funny stuff, too, like the “crazies” who live in the subways (nothing ever changes in New York) swarming up from underground right in front of a Chock Full of Nuts coffeeshop. But there’s not enough of that kind of thing. Instead, there’s Carpenter’s heavy-handed comic-book irony — “Liberty Island Security Control” — and action that today, in the era of Quake and Duke Nukem, plays exactly like a first-person shooter video game, only you don’t control the action.

But there’s actually something extremely comforting and reassuring about watching Escape from New York in the aftermath of September 11. Hollywood’s been so oversensitive about not wanted to offend or upset anyone with violent themes or images of the Twin Towers in almost any context, and this movie proves — for me, at least — that there’s just no point in and no reason for such an attempt. Here’s me, a lifelong New Yorker who still finds herself bursting into tears without provocation three weeks after New York changed forever — if anyone was going to be upset by looking at burning pieces of jetliner splattered across Manhattan streets (as depicted in EFNY) or by skyline views and plot points directly involving the World Trade Center (as is the case with EFNY), it would be me.

Yet instead of being upset by the film because of September 11, the spirit shown by New Yorkers in the three weeks since convinces me that there’s no way in hell that Manhattan would ever be abandoned by New Yorkers, as must have happened in the world of Escape from New York. So EFNY plays like something of a joke, now, instead of a prophetic tragedy. That cabbie played by Ernest Borgnine, who says he’s been driving that cab for 30 years? He’s not a criminal sentenced to the penal colony of Manhattan — he’s just a New Yorker who never left.

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