Friday, March 27, 2015

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS (2000)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*


It's been fourteen years since I watched this notorious flop on DVD, so I re-watched it today, wondering: would I see anything that I'd missed before? It's rare, but every once in a while I re-screen a film that I didn't like on the first go-round, and find interesting tropes in it, even if it's reviled by most of its audience. If I could get something on a second viewing of PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES,  maybe even a film widely despised by its target audience might have some buried nuggets.

Not so; a second viewing of DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS fills me with the same repulsion for its inert, clueless storyline. Its main sociological theme follows a basic "aristocracy vs. the people" pattern, in which the mages of the otherworld Izmir stand in for the corrupt aristocracy, ruling the magic-less common folk with an iron hand. One good mage, the Empress Savina (Thora Birch), stands against corrupt magic-wielders like the primary villain Profion (Jeremy Irons), but even though she's called an empress, she doesn't seem to have much in the way of political support. Her first lines in the film have her prating about how she feels "in her heart" that political liberation is the way of the future. Instead of a strong, beleaguered leader, she sounds like an old hippie. But Profion must think that she poses some kind of threat, for he's working on a plan to obtain mystical control of Izmir's dragons, which he will use as shock troops against the Empress.

While all this is going at the higher levels, two young thieves from society's dregs-- Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans)-- decide that they're going to break into the city's Magic School and steal valuable magical doodads, apparently with the idea of selling them. The script takes no pains to figure out what kind of market there might be in this fantasy-world for stolen supernatural artifacts; it just takes it for granted that these two low-class thieves think they can somehow turn a profit with their hastily planned endeavor.  (Maybe I should say Ridley's endeavor, since for the most part he talks his reluctant partner Snails into the adventure-- more on which later.)

The two youngsters successfully break into the school, but they're stymied by the spells of neophyte sorceress Marina. Fortunately for the thieves (sort of), on the same night Profion's evil henchman Damodar (Bruce Payne) comes calling with his soldiers, seeking to steal a map desired by his master. Marina gets hold of the map, creates a teleportation-portal, and escapes the school, taking Ridley and Sanils along with her for no good reason.

The scripters apparently thought that, in order to imitate the RPG, they had to send the protagonists on a journey, fending off evil pursuers and making allies. Said allies include an armor-clad female warrior-elf (seen above) and an axe-wielding dwarf who, if the script were honest, would have been named something like "Gimli Mark Two." However, even though Ripley and his allies run around through some very nicely designed sets-- which reflect the $35-million budget-- all of the dangers they encounter, like the villains Profion and Damodar, suffer from a poverty of the imagination. Ridley, in the long-running tradition of the "Thief Who Gets Religon," pretty much forgets about his monetary motivations once Marina presents him with the chance to overthrow mage-rule. Snails never catches the idealism bug. The only reason the film gives for him to go along with the others is that Damodar has put out wanted posters on the refugees, so perhaps one can reason that he doesn't want to be caught alone. His allies don't end up doing him much good, though, for Damodar catches up to them. The wizard kills Snails when he won't give him what he wants, which makes for a sort-of heroism on his part, though the way it's played doesn't give Snails much in the way of dignity.

Damodar finally gets the magical doohickey his master wants, and once Profion has the doohickey, he declares dragon-war on Savina. Ridley, eager to avenge Snails, throws himself into the fight, though where he acquired above-average swordfighting-skills, no one knows. He ends up bringing down both Damodar and Profion, while Marina, the elf and Gimli II provide only modest aid.

The worst thing about DUNGEONS-- aside from the fact that there are hardly any dungeons in it, just dragons-- is that few of the characters have even half-decent reasons for acting as they do. I assume that the producers' main model was Lucas's STAR WARS, but even though Lucas's characters seem sketchy at first glance, they are internally consistent in most regards. The relationship of Ridley and Snails is particularly objectionable.  I don't automatically invalidate the antipathy of some critics to the trope of "hero's partner gets killed to give him a reason to get mad," an antipathy that becomes most pronounced when the main hero is white and the partner is not. But even if both thieves had shared the same ethnicity, their partnership would have been ill-defined. As it is, it's hard to believe that the film's producers didn't see the disadvantage in having a black actor play the part of a perpetually-scared sidekick with a name connoting "slowness."

The one good thing about DUNGEONS is that it disproves the adage that the public will always buy crap, for the film was unpopular both with the mass audience and the core D&D enthusiasts. The two made-for-TV sequels didn't redeem the franchise, but as I'll show in future reviews, they're at least tolerable entertainments.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

THE CORSICAN BROTHERS (1941)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair,*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*


In my ruminations on the original Alexandre Dumas novel, THE CORSICAN BROTHERS, I mentioned that I had already reviewed two "Corsican Brothers" films on my film-blog, and said, in part:

I suspect that these two swashbucklers-- one done straight, the other as a jokefest-- borrow their main tropes not from the book but from the influential 1941 Hollywood film starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., summarized here.  IMDB asserts that there were seven previous filmizations of the Dumas story, but none of them have become celebrated by film-fans, so I think I'm correct in suspecting that the Fairbanks film is the primary model for the films from 1953 and 1984.  The makers of the Fairbanks version were probably aware that the film-audience's strongest association with Dumas was his novel THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and so I surmise that the 1941 film was given a "Musketeer-ization" to make it more palatable to lovers of buckled swashes.  

I've finally had a chance to see the 1941 film for the first time in some thirty years, and even without viewing any earlier versions, I think it very likely that this is the first major cinematic treatment of the Dumas tale. While the novel only describes Corsican families wiping out one another in the distant past, the George Bruce-Howard Eastabrook plot hinges on one Corsican family, the Colonnas, attempting to wipe out the other, the Franchis, at the very moment of the titular brothers' birth. Various helpers loyal to the Franchis make sure that the twins-- originally born conjoined, but surgically separated by a doctor-- are also raised separately, so that the head of the Colonna family (Akim Tamiroff) can never suspect their existence. The brother Mario is parented by an aristocratic couple with no children, while the brother Lucien is raised in the wild forests of Corsica with a tribe of bandits. Neither sibling knows of the other's existence, but one of them, Lucien, sometimes has mysterious pains or pleasures without knowing why. Later, as adults (both played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), they learn of their shared history, which includes the revelation that Lucien has been receiving impressions of his brother's experiences, though the somatic connection is not a two-way street. Having been told that their true parents were slain by Colonna, both men decide to pursue their own vendetta against the corrupt nobleman and his family.

The main plot, then, is less in the line of THREE MUSKETEERS and more along the lines of umpteen "lost heir to the throne" narratives. Usually there's only one heir, be it a male or a female, who must reclaim the stolen legacy. But because the core idea of Dumas' story involves twins with a quasi-psychic connection, this means that there must be two possible heirs, which brings into play a trope of sibling rivalry foreign to the original novel.

I should note that in the novel, the brothers are Lucien and Louis, with the former representing the fierce natural state of the tempestuous Corsican people, and the latter being a bookish type who has no skill with firearms and seeks to help his people through his study of the law. The only contemporary violence in the novel is that Louis is killed when a Parisian gentleman maneuvers Louis into fighting a duel. Lucien experiences Louis' injury and death, and so journeys to Paris, where he shocks the Parisian with his likeness to the slain Louis, and then wins a subsequent duel with his brother's killer.

In a loose sense, Lucien is still the "wild brother" and "Louis," rechristened Mario, is still the "mild brother"-- but this time, both of them are highly capable with sword and gun. Mario is the brother who gets the privileges of an aristocratic tutelage-- including training in swordsmanship, first illustrated when he comes to the defense of Isabelle, a lady who will later become his fiancee. Lucien, rather than feeling intense closeness to Mario, resents the other's existence, as well as the fact that he Lucien was constrained to live a hardscrabble existence-- a resentment that would be impossible with Dumas' Lucien, who preferred the bracing life of a hunter and forester (though admittedly not a bandit). Further, Lucien feels some of Mario's sentiments toward the Lady Isabelle, and falls in love with her before he even meets her-- which leads to some interesting thoughts about his not knowing what part of him is real, and what is a reflection from Mario.  Eventually Lucien even tries to make love to Isabelle, breeding a falling-out between the brothers, and when Mario is captured by Colonna, Lucien waits until he thinks Mario is dead before he unleashes his rebel forces against the Colonna stronghold. But it's Lucien, not Mario, who perishes in the final conflict. The ending references the climactic situation from the novel, in that Colonna, thinking that he's killed both Lucien and Mario, gets a major start when he sees Mario alive.

Though this 1941 film hails from the same period that gave us some of Hollywood's classic swashbucklers, including Fairbanks' own 1937 film THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, CORSICAN doesn't quite have the same verve as the best of the best. Some of this may stem from the direction of Gregory Ratoff, who spends a lot of time with talking-heads scenes. Not that the actors are sinless. Ruth Warrick as Isabelle makes a fairly dull leading-lady, whose charms are targeted by Colonna as well as by Lucien and Mario. Tamiroff's Colonna blusters as the Franchis decimate his allies, but he makes a poor villain, in part because all of his thinking is done for him by his aide Tomasso. Fairbanks' Mario is a suitably pleasing aristocratic hero, but for Lucien the actor's rendition is less than subtle, reduced to a lot of tortured gnashing of teeth.  The action-scenes are competent but undistingushed, even the concluding sword-fight, wherein Tamiroff is pretty transparently doubled.

The most interesting "myth" of the film is essentially a take on Esau and Jacob, with Mario as the noble, selfless brother and Lucien as the selfish, somewhat brutal brother. Arguably the film reverses Dumas' theme: while the French author valorizes the passionate virtues of rural Corsican life, the American film seems to be staunchly on the side of the cultured aristocrats-- though this may be more a matter of imitating earlier films, rather than an actual sociopolitical stance.  After wading through some of CORSICAN's slower moments, I find that I prefer the more low-rent BANDITS OF CORSICA, even though in essence it simply recapitulates the Ratoff film's plotline with fewer talking heads.



Wednesday, March 18, 2015

INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociologiical*


Of all the "Invisible Man" films from Universal in its classic period, INVISIBLE AGENT is the only one that provides the protagonist with villains worthy of his powers.

Compared to the 1933 original, this entry is distinctly lightweight, even though it does pit the newest version against the Axis. Chemist Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) is introduced as yet another individual who somehow gets hold of the formula invented by Doctor Griffin. This time Raymond is an actual descendant of Griffin's, but he unlike his predecessor is well aware that the drug has a tendency to madden those that use it.  However, agents of the Axis-- including German office Stauffer (Cedric Hardwicke) and Japanese agent Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre)-- accost Raymond in his lab and try to torture the invisibility formula out of him. The scene sets the tone for all future appearances of the two primary Axis nationalities, for Stauffer and the Germans are largely buffoons, while Ikito and his Japanese surbordinates are subtle schemers.

Raymond escapes these agents-- whom he will later encounter again in Germany-- and runs straight to the American government. Very improbably, the government not only doesn't try to force the secret from him to use in the war, they blithely accept his word regarding the serum's evil effects. Even more improbably, Raymond, a scientist with no field experience in espionage, tells them that only he can be trusted with becoming the Allies' "invisible agent"-- and the authorities blandly accept Raymond's terms.

It's possible, though, that war-weary stateside audiences entered into the film with a sense that it was intended to be a juvenile version of wartime espionage. Certainly Raymond's first invisible feat upon entering Axis territory-- parachuting into Germany and turning invisible on the way down-- has the air of loony comedy about it. Later, after Raymond has met his undercover contact, a lady named Maria (Ilona Massey), he ends up pulling invisible pranks on another German buffoon who comes courting her. Though technically Hall isn't "on screen" most of the time, the script gives both Hall and Massey enough good lines that  they generate better-than-average chemistry.

In fairness, Raymond does have a few bad moments as he tries to complete his espionage, and some of them may be called by the disorienting effects of the invisibility drug, though the script isn't explicit on this matter. He's finally captured by Baron Ikito, who shows himself to be far more resourceful than Stauffer, and in truth the interference of the blundering Germans works to the advantage of the Invisible Agent. After Raymond flees with Maria and the information he needs, Ikito has a memorable scene committing seppuku for his failure-- which at least establishes that he possesses a code of honor, one rarely seen in wartime depictions of the Japanese.

AGENT is an efficient formula-film, with no scary stuff but some decent action-sequences and a strong cast.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

JUNGLE WOMAN (1944)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, cosmological*


JUNGLE WOMAN is distinctly inferior in most respects to its predecessor CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, which isn't much of a downturn since I opined that even the first flick in the series was just "a reasonably compelling B-film." In place of John Carradine's smooth and ruthless mad scientist, sort of a Colin Clive for the B-level, we have a tedious, well-meaning medical doctor who gets latterly involved with another scientist's creation, not unlike the "depressingly stable" Ludwig of GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN.  This rather boring fellow, Doctor Fletcher, is essayed by J. Carroll Naish, who did considerably better with the over-the-top characters seen in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE MONSTER MAKER.

Similarly, while CAPTIVE boasted the fluid direction of Edward Dymytrk, JUNGLE is burdened with the generally pedestrian pacing of Reginald LeBorg. The original film's plot, while absurd, was at least rooted in the idea that the she-ape who falls for a human male had some time in which to form an attachment to him, via their prolonged association in the circus. Here, the resurrected Cheela / Paula falls for a rather bland young fellow for no particular reason. As with the original target from the first film, the new guy, name of Bob, already has a girlfriend, Fletcher's daughter Joan, so maybe one can argue that Paula obsessively wants whatever she can't have-- or something.

The film does sustain two sources of interest, though. First, if one has seen the original film, it's amusing to see how the scriptwriters attempted to elide as much as they could of Paula's origins, in order to simplify the film's narrative for new audiences. Thus, in order to minimize the role of Carradine's Doctor Walters, the script makes the peculiar statement that Cheela's transformation into an ape-woman was initiated by some unnamed mad scientist in Africa, and though Walters does figure into the recapitulated story, he's given a more minor role, as of someone who simply stumbled into the ape-woman's situation-- though no one new to the story would really be able to figure out what role Walters had played from this confused script.

Paula's original man-crush and his girlftriend make minor appearances in order to provide some linking material, and then they disappear from the narrative, which is then just one set-up after another of Paula stalking either Joan, or Bob and Joan together, until Dr. Fletcher finally sees fit to end her rampage in a very anti-climactic manner. The story is actually told in media res, much like 1940's BLACK FRIDAY, but without achieving even that film's modest suspense via the device. However, the fact that Paula is hardly ever a real "ape-woman" in the second film leads us to its only other source of merit: it features a much more active female menace. Acquanetta was a distinctly limited actress, but even though she probably didn't weight much more than a hundred pounds, LeBorg does manage to make her seem both exotic and menacing, particularly thanks to an early scene where she's seen crushing a metal ashtray in her hand.

Overall, JUNGLE is mostly interesting for the familiar faces of Universal, and only secondarily as entertainment in itself.

Friday, March 13, 2015

GORGO (1961)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

GORGO was director Eugene Lourie's final word on the giant-monster subgenre that he helped initiate in the U.S. with BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, and to which he had returned with 1959's GIANT BEHEMOTH. GORGO is easily the best of the three, though it seems to sound something of a death-knell to U.S. production of the subgenre, with only a handful of exceptions (VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, VALLEY OF GWANGI, et al).

I argued in my review of GIANT BEHEMOTH that the film seemed more "mythic" than the 20,000 Fathoms dinosaur, and that I credited this resemblance to cross-pollination from the popularity of the 1955 GODZILLA. Early plans for GORGO dealt with having the monster arise from an island near Japan, just as Godzilla had, but in the end the titular monster first shows his face on Ireland. Rather than making an assault on this island's larger neighbor-- in Ireland's case, Great Britain-- Gorgo is kidnapped from his territorial waters by greedy entrepreneurs, a KING KONG motif that would later be frequently recycled by various Japanese films.

I don't imagine that director Lourie or any of his collaborators had access to the Japanese GOJIRA, but if not, the parallels are striking. GOJIRA is much stronger than its translated version in terms of loosely identifying the giant monster with the primitive rites of the islanders, and Lourie's film follows the same pattern. Long before we see a monster, our viewpoint characters, American salvage-men Joe Ryan and Sam Slade, encounter hostility from the Gaelic-speaking Irish fishermen they encounter. In time the two characters will become like two halves of KONG's Carl Denham character: Ryan being the out-for-himself exploiter, and Slade his conscience, which tries to remind him of the consequences of his actions. There are no parallels to KONG's romantic couple-- indeed, this is one of the few U.S. SF-films of the period to sport no leading lady. In their place we do get an Irish orphan-boy named Shaun, who immediately shows a liking for Ryan even though he, like Slade, doesn't approve of Ryan's actions.

Like Denham, Ryan captures a monster, albeit one a little smaller than Kong. Unlike Denham, who gets no static from the natives whose god he abducts, Ryan does have to deal with the Irish government, who feel they have a claim on the giant reptile named "Gorgo" (though Shaun calls him "Oggra," after some Celtic myth-figure), Ryan makes an end run around the Irish authorities and takes Gorgo to England to exhibit the beast for profit. Shaun stows away on Ryan's ship and Ryan ends becoming the orphan's protector in England-- an obvious set-up for a much bigger parental theme to come.

The idea of a giant monster's bigger parent coming to look for its child probably wasn't totally original even in 1961, but it seems to have had great impact at the time, and influenced a number of Japanese kaiju films as well. Lourie has said that because his own little girl identified with the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, he wanted GORGO to portray the reptile as a sinless innocent-- and he does get this point across better than many other Kong-imitators, simply by virtue of giving Gorgo a big mamma who comes looking for him.

I'm glad that one aspect of Lourie's original vision for GORGO was overruled by his producers, though. Lourie wanted to have no Godzilla-like conflict with the military, but the producers knew that the audience would expect a major combat between Gorgo's mom and the British armed forces. This running battle is easily as good as that of the original GOJIRA, though I could have lived without yet another revisiting of the "electrical trap" schtick. Perhaps Lourie thought the violence detracted from his sentimental theme of a mother-beast seeking out her child against all odds. I can only say that, without the violence, GORGO's final vision of man being humbled by the powers of the primitive world would have been far less effective. I also note that Gorgo's attack occasions in one British commentator the memory of the Blitz, just as Godzilla's assault duplicates Japan's struggle at the end of WWII.

In the end, I can't quite rate Gorgo as being quite as mythic as either Kong or Godzilla. Maybe it is the parent-child thing; once you get that, there's nothing more to say about Gorgo or his mom, references to the Greek "Gorgon" notwithstanding.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1997)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


I had not read Wilkie Collins' THE WOMAN IN WHITE when I reviewed a 1940 film based partly on its storyline, Tod Slaughter's CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE. In that review I wrote:

Whatever the phenomenality of the Collins novel, this film is entirely in a naturalistic universe, and only the killing-by-spike even registers as a "bizarre crime."

As of last January I've read the Collins novel, and commented on it here. The book is, as I suspected, entirely naturalistic, and though no one gets killed with a spike, there's still a "bizarre crime" in the involved plot that condemns a sane woman to take the place of an allegedly mad one in an insane asylum-- an element totally omitted from the Slaughter film.

I've seen some IMDB comments about this 1997 BBC telefilm, mostly about how much the telefilm departs from the source novel. However, the original book is a very talky epistolary novel, and any producer worth his salt would have to change it around somewhat to keep from putting the audience to sleep.

WOMAN eschews Collins' multiple narrators, focusing principally on the character of Marian Fairlie, the "plain" sister of beautiful Laura, who will eventually be the victim of the scheming Count Fosco and his pawn, the faux nobleman Percival Glyde. Script and direction frequently "jazz up" many of the key scenes for greater visceral impact. For instance, in the novel the young swain Hartright falls in love with Laura, and she reciprocates. Hartright doesn't even try to wed the aristocratic young woman; she's out of his class and his monetary range.  The adapters evidently thought this needed to be more dramatic, so Fosco contrives a plan to ruin Hartright in Laura's eyes, by bribing a maid to say that the young fellow approached the serving-girl for sex. This contrivance blurs the novel's social critique by making Fosco the villain rather than the British class system, yet it must be admitted that it's one of many contrivances that moves the adaptation along at a refreshingly brisk pace.

One of Collins' other major themes, the marginalization of women, takes slightly different form in WOMAN than in the novel, but I think the telefilm is still basically true to that theme. The plot perforce deals with Laura's unhappy marriage to Glyde and the subsequent attempts of the villains to gain access to her fortune, and both original and adaptation demonstrate the basic inequity of the British wife before her lord and master. The adaptation places more narrative emphasis upon some of the examples of men preying upon women, to the extent that Marian actually feels implicated in her father's peccadillos-- which is a little further than Collins goes. However, because the film elides the character of Jane Catherick-- again, probably in the interest of jettisoning more talky scenes-- one does not see the converse, in which women sometimes gain monetary advantages over men due to the latter's sexual needs. The character of the maid is given some of Jane's lines, but she doesn't put across the same dynamic. In order to abbreviate the reasons why Anne Catherick is unjustly sentenced to the asylum, the film creates a relationship between Anne and the Glyde impostor. It's rather arbitrary, but again, I can understand wanting to avoid the more involved backstory.

The most notable disappearance is that of Count Fosco at the climax. Glyde meets his maker pretty much as in the novel, though Marian is more involved in that fate, but Fosco simply vanishes afterward. Considering how Collins had to tweak coincidence to give Hartright a weapon with which he could destroy the Count in the novel, it's just as well that this plot-line was dropped. Still, Fosco's escape mars the adaptation's end. Overall, though, WOMAN is an eminently serviceable introduction to one of those Victorian novels almost no one reads any more.

Monday, March 9, 2015

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983), EQUALIZER 2000 (1987)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1, 2) *fair,* (3) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


Though I enjoyed my re-watch of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, it's not one of John Carpenter's most kinetic films. Carpenter got to make the film on the strength of HALLOWEEN's box office, but ESCAPE's pace is less like HALLOWEEN, or the later BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and more like its immediate predecessor THE FOG: brooding with malevolence.

ESCAPE may be also be seen as a negative response to the many sunny space operas spawned by STAR WARS-- though the original Lucas film had its moments of grit and grime-- and a return to the subgenre that dominated big-budget SF-films in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the dystopia-subgenre represented by the PLANET OF THE APES films, SOYLENT GREEN, and SILENT RUNNING.  Like SOYLENT GREEN, ESCAPE trades freely on the image of New York as the ultimate "urban jungle." Here Carpenter and co-scripter Nick Castle extrapolate from the city's 1970s reputation as "Crime City" to imagine a scenario in which the American government has surrendered Manhattan Island to the criminal element, turning it into the country's biggest penitentiary.  Criminals are allowed to make their own society, as long as they don't try to leave.

An aerial mishap drops the President of the U.S. into Manhattan, along with an audiotape he carries, containing a speech vital to keeping the peace with the country's perennial enemies, China and the USSR. One of the prison's alpha-dogs, "the Duke of New York"(Isaac Hayes), takes the President prisoner and threatens to kill him if the country doesn't yield to the prisoners' demands-- which, naturally, include freedom.  The authorities draft ex-special forces commando Snake Plissken to covertly enter the city and escape with both the President and the tape he carries. Just to keep it clear that the authorities are not the good guys, their representative Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) injects Plissken with timed explosives that will eventually kill him, if he doesn't return on time with both of his acquisitions.

The film then follows Plissken on his dystopian search-and-rescue mission, as he infiltrates Manhattan, makes a few semi-trustworthy allies (including the director's wife Adrienne Barbeau), and eventually succeeds in freeing the President-- albeit with a twist that visits a fitting revenge on the corrupt authorities of America. (No final face-off between Russell and Van Cleef, unfortunately.)

Russell, principally known in the U.S. for his light Disney comedies, successfully re-created his image as the super-tough Snake, despite the fact that ESCAPE's body count seems rather low for this type of thriller. And though the actor did pump up his bod to do so, his scathing, cynical attitude is what sells the film-- which is fortunate, because Carpenter and Castle don't give any other character much presence. Hayes' "Duke" and Barbeau's "Maggie" look good, but they don't have any good character-arcs. ESCAPE is Russell's film all the way.



Curiously, the best 1980s imitation of ESCAPE is exactly the opposite. Although the hero is given many elements of Snake Plissken's look, and is given the knightly name of Parsifal, he's played by Michael Sopkiw, a pretty-boy actor whose idea of "attitude" is to keep his face as emotionless as possible. But while Carpenter's brooding pace yields only sporadic thrills, director Sergio Martino doesn't allow for a slow moment in 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK.  In fact, Martino may be borrowing his tempo less from Carpenter than from George Miller in the Mad Max films, though only the film's opening uses the major visual trope of the Miller films: of crazy-ass cars racing around in the desert.

In Martino's FALL it isn't only New York that has fallen: all of the continental United States has been decimated by nuclear war. The film on just one aspect of the post-holocaust world: that one of the invading forces, the evil "Euraks," occupy New York, where they conduct beastly experiments on the inhabitants. A more far-reaching effect of the war is that no new children have been born for many years. Yet somehow the "American" side, called "the Federation," finds out that one fertile woman exists in the Eurak-held territory of New York. The Federation drafts Parsifal to bring her out, though these bosses are more generous than Carpenter's, for they give the hero a couple of tough sidekicks to help out.

And "help" they do. From start to finish, FALL is full of beatings, shootings, knifings, car races, eyes being gouged out, guys in medieval masks hunting people-- and almost everyone in the film is more visually arresting than the hero. Where Carpenter's ESCAPE is a downbeat dystopia with a few strong action-scenes, Martino's FALL is like a carnival-ride. Indeed, early in the film Parsifal defeats a fellow racer, and an emcee in a clown-getup congratulates the hero on his win: later, brightly-garbed acrobats are among the allies Parsifal draws to him during his New York sojourn. I've seen Martino's fluid camera-work unfairly compared (on IMDB) to the frantic zoom-lens of Jesus Franco. But there's a crucial difference: Franco used to zoom in on *everything* without much discrimination, while Martino is getting in the viewer's face with all the "good stuff."

Presumably the hero is given his name as a reference to the famous knight of the Grail, and here, the "Grail" is the fertile woman he brings back to civilization. Refreshingly, Parsifal doesn't fall in love with the one fertile woman; he has an encounter with another female who sacrifices her life for him. Despite this downside, Martino does give FALL a more upbeat ending than ESCAPE, as if he were trying to keep from biting Carpenter's style too much. But the "fair" rating I give to the film's mythicity derives less from the minor medieval references than from its bright sense of the carnivalesque.



In contrast to these good post-apoc films, there's almost nothing good about Cirio Santiago's EQUALIZER 2000. In a post-nuclear future Richard Norton plays Slade, a soldier betrayed by his employers, the fascist "Ownership." To get back at them he joins a rebel group and manufactures a six-barreled rifle with multiple applications, the "Equalizer 2000" of the title. The script gives no reason as to where Slade gets the know-how to make a weapon that can blow away his former allies, who have nothing but commonplace firearms to fight with.

Norton entered the cinematic world on the strength of his martial arts skills, but unlike many other martial-mavens Norton eventually became a competent actor with some good screen charisma. None of that appears in EQUALIZER, which may not be Norton's fault. Director Cirio Santiago allows for minimal conversational scenes, focusing largely on scads and scads of high-powered machine-gunnings. Santiago has a good reputation with lovers of "trash cinema" for down-and-dirty action-films, but this material is out of his depth-- which may be why he relies almost exclusively on scenes of shooting and blowing things up.

Minor eighties cult-actress Corinne Wahl looks good, and Robert Patrick has a small part long before his rise to prominence.