Take the A Train
Escape From New York Directed by John Carpenter At the Sack Cheri
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, when my friends and I were only approximately of legal age, we patronized an ancient bar in New York City's Yorkville neighborhood--an establishment that was subsequently turned into a singles bar frequented by professional hockey players. Tended by a genial Irish giant named Ned, the bar had fallen on difficult times and was forced to accept the whiskey-sour-or-rum-and-coke indignities of my friends and me. And like all good neighborhood bars, the Shamrock had its share of local bums who always depended on Ned and his colleagues for a nightly snort or two.
The most pitiful--and insistent--of these bedraggled boozehounds was a diminutive and (we thought) mute gentleman who was called "Bosco" by the regulars. Whenever we went to the Shamrock, Bosco would turn up at least once an evening--stopped, filthy and silent. One day, however, he walked in, turned to the senior member of our group and spoke. "Hey you," he said. "Do me a favor: Kill the Mayor."
New Yorkers, like Bosco and myself, prefer direct emotions and uncomplicated thoughts. And that's why Escape From New York is so egreiously bad. Director John Carpenter has tried to summon all the malevolence of the nation's biggest city--and there is plenty there--and speed it up to a time when all of the city's other qualities have moved to the Sunbelt. In 1997 all that is left is the Evil.
Which is fine, a good idea. But instead of trying to understand and evoke what that evil might mean. Carpenter dresses it up in a preposterous and complicated plot, and must spend so much time sorting out the silly details that he has no time for anything more substantial. Even as escapist summer fare, this movie is a disaster--it lacks both an entertaining plot and any sympathetic characters.
If you don't believe that the plot is convoluted, savor this: Air Force One is hijacked by the National Liberation Front for America and crashes into Manhattan Island, which is now a penal colony, a sort of Devil's Island-on-the-Hudson. The President (Donald Pleasance) survives the crash only to be taken hostage by the prisoners. From their headquarters on Liberty Island (home of the Statue of...), the police hire an ex-military hero turned crook. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the leader of the free world. He has 24 hours to make the rescue, because the Leader of the Free World must appear by then at the Hartford Summit Conference (Hartlord!? Yeah, and the next summer Olympics are going to be in Elizabeth, New Jersey). Just to keep the Snake's attention, the cops have planted a device in his neck that will kill him in 24 hours if he doesn't return with the President. Incidentally, there will be a nuclear holocaust if the President doesn't show at Hartford.
This synopsis covers about the first ten minutes of the movie.
The problem is not that Escape is unrealistic; who cares? The problem is that it lacks internal consistency. To make viewers care one way or the other about what's going on, a director must create his own criteria, and then follow them. Carpenter, also the co-screenwriter, doesn't do this.
And that is a shame, because Carpenter is talented (Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13), and because the idea of New York as penal colony has so much potential. Carpenter, though, simply wastes the possibilities. Manhattan, with its mounumental architecture on every block, has an abundance of magnificent locations for titanic, evil struggles. Why then did Carpenter choose to set Escape mostly in the anonymous alleys and burntout storefronts of other cities? And why does he employ location shots for a meaningless wrestling match (featuring a performer who bears an admirable resemblance to that titan of professional wrestling. George "The Animal" Steele). Escape could just as well take place in St. Louis.
Just as Carpenter fails to take advantage of the city, he also forfeits the prodigious potential of his characters, particularly that of Isaac Hayes, who plays the Duke of New York. His ebony dome intact from the days of Shaft and his other forays into the Blaxploitation genre, Hayes could be a marvelously evocative figure--instead, he comes off as a dummy with about three lines and a shiny forehead and automobile. Hayes can't really complain; the whole script can't run more than about ten pages.
Russell, looking like the Hathaway Shirt Hit Man in his hokey eye-patch, fares a bit better, but even he can't seem to figure out whom he is supposed to be. And Pleasance looks thoroughly embarrassed by his fate, as he lugs his fleshy body across the screen. (Question #1: Why is it that the people who play the President in movies always look like Adlai Stevenson? Question #2: If Adlai looked so much like a president, why did he always lose?)
What Carpenter has done is to create a complicated and silly story where a simple and effective plot would have worked better. The appeal of his fantastically successful Halloween lay in the unadorned menace of the villain; New York could have served a similar function. It is a city of extremes, both good and bad, and Carpenter, might have seized its evil and wrung from it a portrait of malignancy out of control. But he didn't. He didn't even try. It wouldn't have been that difficult--all he had to do was ride the subways.