Monday, March 9, 2015


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

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.

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