Friday, 16 June 2017

Escape from New York



















Post-apocalyptic in every detail bar a nuclear exchange, John Carpenter and Nick Castle's Escape from New York takes an action premise then describes it with the kind of anxiety usually reserved for horror filmmaking. Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, a raspy ex-special forces operative who made his name sneaking into a litany of Russian cities before dropping out, turning to a life of crime. Snake is a relic from a world that has passed, a rugged, bad-tempered individual bumping heads with the compromised and robotic company men who now rule the country.

Whatever happened in Leningrad burnt Snake out, perhaps exposing the lie that forms the bedrock of a regime that has seen America congeal into a total police state. Snake is a soldier so explicitly used up that orders have no meaning to him. He isn't on this mission into the corpse of the Big Apple to redeem himself and therefore become heroic by the standards of the men who have crow-barred him into this assignment. He's being coerced. Snake is captured, dragged to Liberty Island and injected with explosives before being loaded up with shuriken and an Ingram sub-machine gun for what amounts to a suicide mission. Despite his legendary status he's still just a disposable commodity, an experiment forced into play while jackbooting dead heads weigh up an air strike on the Island.

Snake doesn't represent salvation, he's just another component in a desperate, pessimistic mission engineered by an acting leadership going through the motions. Carpenter and Castle have done something wonderful in Escape from New York, they've taken a scenario that could be told with the sweeping, bullying voice of patriotic duty then torpedoed it. The rescue of an encircled President isn't played for glory, the situation is splayed open, exposing the rot and ruthless opportunism that would be at work if the unthinkable actually happened with these witless bullies at the helm.

The one shred of humanity shown by the establishment comes from Lee Van Cleef's Hauk, an older man with much the same background as Plissken, now acting as the warden of the vast Manhattan penitentiary. Hauk vouches for Snake, his interim criminal years made irrelevant because Hauk remembers when the ex-soldier once did something bold and impressive. Of course Hauk may trust Plissken's skills but he doesn't trust his intentions. This isn't a world founded on honour and pride, instead Escape from New York spins on the kind of utility you'd expect from a world in which Reaganomic rhetoric has infected every aspect of the ruling class. Something terrible must have happened, no-one has any higher, romantic aspirations anymore. Instead everyone behaves like cronies prepping for their next corporate appraisal.

The one nod to chivalry displayed by the government's forces again comes from Hauk. Following the mission's completion he makes himself available to Snake, asking him if he still wants to kill him. Hauk is acknowledging something unspoken, that perhaps by serving this power structure he actually does deserve to die. Snake, the uncompromised hero would actually redeem Hauk somewhat if he chose to take his life. The gesture is immediately poisoned by The Warden's insistence on pitching Snake a potential return to the fold after it's clear that the jail-breaker has chosen to stay his hand. Russell's limping, injured hero couldn't be less interested.

Snake Plissken isn't an action hero and Escape from New York isn't structured to express victory. This massive story is told in details, Snake's individual triumphs are always small and stolen. Carpenter never falls into the trap of letting his main character build up a head of steam, stakes are never lost to scale, every dangerous interaction is essentially Plissken attempting to misinform his quarry, allowing him to strike. Snake by name, snake by nature. Carpenter doesn't linger on the violence either, Escape may miscommunicate a few of its thumps but even these under-covered cracks play into an overall thesis about how liquid power can be. Violence is always a surprise.

Once in New York all bets are off, it doesn't matter if you can talk big or have access to incredible technology, are you vicious? Will you strike first? Escape has a feral quality, man reduced to teeth and claws, roaming around the ruins of a financial fortress. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey shoot dark and wide, allowing the gutted mise en scene to tell a story and communicate the stakes. Snake is never alone once he enters Manhattan. There's always something or someone else in the frame, running interference or sizing him up.

Escape communicates a state of complete hostility. The film barely jumps around, the opening act in particular charts its discoveries by Snake's slow, hesitant pace. This segment, the film's best, has no sense of release in it. Snake is given an impossible task then we watch his attempt slowly unfold. Carpenter's film delights in this sense of pressure, the siege mentality of his horror films bleeding into the language of action / adventure. Pointedly, Snake does not surmount every challenge or bend the devastated city to his will, the film's too canny for that. Snake creeps around the pitch black streets as quietly as he can, waiting for an opportune moment to lash out and do some damage.

No comments: