Recently some joker spread a phony story on the internet about how Kurt Russell had tricked Paramount into greenlighting ESCAPE FROM EARTH, a third Snake Plissken movie, as part of a three picture deal. I knew it was too good to be true, but I also know that Russell always says Snake is his favorite character he’s ever played, and he clearly loves working with John Carpenter. Carpenter could use a return to the big screen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if after Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF comes out next year (starring Kurt Russell as a killer stuntman and scored by Carpenter) there is a rise in popularity and nostalgia for the classic Kurt Russell badass roles. I think it would actually be smart to make a new Plissken movie right now as long as it wasn’t a huge budget and it wasn’t a rehash of the other two. So, their loss I guess. And the world’s.
Of course, reading this horse shit got ME nostalgic for the old John Carpenter badass movies, so I watched THEY LIVE again, because that’s my favorite (sorry Kurt). And then I did something I never did before, I watched ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and ESCAPE FROM L.A. in a row, to get a better comparison. It’s sort of like one of those puzzles where there’s two similar drawings and you have to pick out what’s different. Hey, wait a minute, that baseball player is holding an ear of corn instead of a bat and shit like that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a doctor’s office, but they have Highlights there sometimes.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is of course a classic. It’s a good dark-future concept, the idea of Manhattan being turned into a maximum security prison where the country’s most notorious outlaws are walled in and are free to live or fight as they please (they have prisons kind of like that in some countries, see the movie CARANDIRU for example). I’m not sure it’s meant as a comment on the “hard on crime” poses politicians took in the ’80s, but there is something beautifully horrible about the Statue of Liberty being turned into the lookout tower and security headquarters of the world’s biggest prison. Poetic injustice.
The low budget and the now-dated idea of futuristic computer technology help to create the cool, gloomy vibe of the movie. Almost the whole thing takes place at night, and the apocalyptic, burnt up city streets match pretty well with the fake but cool looking model shots of the city. All the maniac WARRIORS and ROAD WARRIOR types look right at home in this world, as does Isaac Hayes as the A-#1 Duke of New York. And it’s all glued together by yet another classic John Carpenter keyboard score with a catchy theme song and lots of atmospheric low droning bass vibrations. It’s a very dark and cynical feel only occasionally pierced by the cab driver played by Ernest Borgnine, who likes to play the American Bandstand theme song from his tape deck.
Just as great as this world is the concept of the story: the president (Donald Pleasance) has crash-landed in Manhattan, and he has in his possession an audio tape that is needed to stop a world war. The criminals inside have the president hostage and will kill him if the police come close. So they decide that the only way to save the world is to send a criminal – legendary war hero turned infamous bank robber Snake Plissken. And to secure Snake’s cooperation they inject him with an explosive capsule that they will only neutralize once he’s returned with the president and the tape.
Still, none of this would work that well if you didn’t have a great, charismatic anti-hero badass at the center. Luckily, Snake is just that. Russell is clearly copying Clint’s quiet voice and stoic presence, but he does it well. And his look (eyepatch, long hair, scowl, sleeveless black shirt) is as iconic as just about any character in the history of badass cinema. You barely see or hear from him in the first 15 minutes of the movie, but when they give him his mission his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude is established quickly. My favorite bit is when they start talking to him about the president and he asks, “The president of what?”
You also got a great supporting cast. Of course there’s Hayes and Borgnine, and COCKFIGHTER’s Harry Dean Stanton as Brain. But most of all there’s Lee Van God Damn Cleef as the government asshole in charge of Snake’s mission.
As great as this movie is, I have to admit that it is lacking a small little something. It has the characters, it has the story, it definitely has the atmosphere. But to me it doesn’t quite have the slow but powerful drive of the best Carpenter movies. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, THE THING, HALLOWEEN, and yes, even THEY LIVE… these are movies that pull you along with the slow, determined rhythm of a heartbeat, and imperceptibly stack on the tension a little at a time as they march toward the climax. To me, no matter how many times I watch it, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK doesn’t quite have that. It makes me a little sleepy after a while. I’m not trying to diminish the legend or anything. I love this movie. I just have to admit that it’s not perfect.
Now, I’m gonna catch hell for this, but I gotta be honest. I don’t think ESCAPE FROM L.A. has that problem as much. In that one, the action escalates until it gets ridiculous, then Snake jumps from a flaming helicopter to have his ultimate showdown with the authorities and give the whole world the middle finger. A very satisfying ending, and the one I always point to when I get pissed off thinking about how Vin Diesel sold out to the government at the end of XXX and instead of turning the tables on them just took their money and hung out on a beach. Snake would rather cut off his own dick than do something like that.
This sequel definitely has other problems though. I can partly understand why it has such a bad reputation. The main thing is that it’s more of a remake than a sequel. They take the template of the first movie but mix things around to fit the culture and the landmarks of Los Angeles. Snake gets caught again, he’s given a virus again, he’s sent on a mission again. He comes in on a submarine instead of a glider, but his closeup inside the cockpit looks almost the same. Instead of Borgnine’s taxi driver as his guide and transportation he has Steve Buscemi as Maps To the Stars Eddie. Instead of facing the Duke of New York, who has chandeliers on his car, he fights Cuervo Jones, who has dollheads and a disco ball on his car. Instead of a tape he has to get a disc, and he pulls a switch again. He even uses some of the same lines (“Call me Snake”) and instead of “I thought you were dead” everybody tells him “I thought you were taller.” Instead of fake looking models there’s fake looking CGI (which is not as charming).
The best and most misunderstood remake element is what they chose to do as the L.A. version of gladiatorial combat. In the first one, Snake is forced into the ring to fight a huge, scary looking wrestler, and he ends up killing him with a wooden plank with nails in it. In ESCAPE FROM L.A. it looks like the same thing is going to happen, but they lead him through all the gladiatorial fighting and into a fenced off basketball court. Instead of fighting a guy he has to fight the shot clock. He has to make ten points going from hoop to hoop, but if he misses a shot or fails the ten second shot clock then they’ll execute him.
Plus, he’s getting tired and dizzy from the Plutonium-7 virus he’s been injected with. But of course, Snake turns out to be really good at basketball, and he pulls it off. Who would’ve ever guessed Snake Plissken was good at basketball? This is not something I ever considered. I love this scene.
There are other, more Californian encounters. Peter Fonda plays a surfer always looking to ride tsunami waves, and this leads to a hilariously ridiculous action sequence where Snake jumps from a surfboard onto a car. There’s also a little run-in with some OMEGA MAN type hooded freaks who kidnap Snake and bring him to Bruce Campbell as “the surgeon general of Beverly Hills” who needs fresh parts for vanity transplants. And the climactic battle (involving a phony looking hang glider battle) takes place at Happy Kingdom By the Sea, formerly Disneyland. (Apparently Anaheim is included in Los Angeles Island.)
So it’s a rehash and it’s a little more silly and absurd than the original, and that’s what people hate. But I think this movie is really underrated. The most important aspect of both movies is Snake Plissken, and I think he’s improved with age. He looks tougher, he gets to fight alot more, he gets to do more stunts, and he shows his amoral side even more. When he’s given a mission by the president at the beginning, he doesn’t even know who the guy is, then when he finds out he tries to strangle him. When he’s about to leave on the submarine he asks the agents in charge of him if they will be administering the antidote to him when he gets back, and when they say no he immediately tries to gun them down. He has a great scene where he’s surrounded by gunmen and he offers to “give you assholes a chance.” Then he beats them by cheating. I can’t get enough of this character. I wish he would come back.
Of course, Carpenter hasn’t made a theatrical movie since the bummer of GHOSTS OF MARS in 2001, he’s only done a little bit of TV. My internet pals Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan wrote two episodes of the cable anthology series MASTERS OF HORROR that were directed by Mr. Carpenter. I actually thought their “Cigarette Burns” was pretty good for TV, with a fun concept and some crazy fucked up shit (my favorite part is when Udo Kier casually reveals that he has a weird albino angel boy with its wings cut off chained up in his living room, and he keeps it on a turntable so he can properly display it to people. You don’t see that shit on CRIBS). But I’ve heard nothing but bad things about the series in general. Some people like “Homecoming,” the Joe Dante one where the restless dead Iraq veterans come back as zombies and instead of eating brains they demand the right to vote. Of course I like that concept, but I thought the execution was corny and didn’t ring true.
So it might be premature to be expanding on that type of Masters-of-You-Name-It format, but still… why not a MASTERS OF BADASS? We team the great badasses, new and old, with directors of action classics as well as visionaries who maybe wouldn’t normally work in action. And with the low budget and hour long format they will be more willing to experiment. Of course you gotta have Seagal, Van Damme, Stallone, Bruce, Chow Yun Fat, Wesley Snipes, Sonny Chiba, Gordon Liu, maybe dig up Bruce Li if he’s still alive. You could try for Clint. And of course Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier. Roddy Piper. You could ask Jet, Jackie, Tony Jaa. Brian Bosworth if you need a slot to fill.
For directors you gotta get John McTiernan, John Woo, maybe Andrew Davis, Michael Winner, Mike Hodges, Takeshi Kitano, John Flynn, Craig Baxley. You could ask Tarantino and Eastwood, might as well try.
But most of all you gotta have a John Carpenter/Kurt Russell episode. Maybe you don’t trust the tv anthology format, maybe you think Carpenter lost it because of GHOSTS OF MARS, maybe you’re one of those weirdos in the majority who don’t like VAMPIRES. But you’d still watch the Russell/Carpenter reunion, right? Come on pay cable, let’s do this.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.