Escape from New York (1981)

‘I’m ready to kick your ass into the next world, war hero.’

In the last years of the 20th Century, Manhattan Island has become a fortified maximum security prison, leaving the inmates entirely to their own devices. Terrorists hijack Air Force One and force the plane down in the city, and a notorious criminal is charged with rescuing the President…

High-concept dystopian action thriller from director John Carpenter that handed actor Kurt Russell the role of a lifetime. A fine supporting cast and top-notch technical support helped to fashion one of the most influential films of the 1980s.

It’s the eve of a vital peace conference, and the U.S. President (Donald Pleasance) is en route with information on a cassette tape that may avert a global war. But his plane crashes in the middle of New York, a city under the control of the most dangerous criminals in America. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) takes a fleet of choppers in to retrieve him, but Pleasance has already fallen into the hands of a top crime boss, the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).

Forced to back off, Van Cleef conceives a desperate plan; send in career criminal Snake Plissken (Russell) to get Pleasance and the tape. The peace conference is almost over, so Russell has less than 24 hours to complete his mission, his cooperation assured by the two explosive capsules Van Cleef has injected into his neck.

Much imitated but never bettered, Carpenter’s smash-and-grab chase through an alternative anti-future still has the smarts and power to keep an audience on the hook. The world-building is efficient and persuasive, and like the narrative, it’s kept reasonably simple, details of the global situation scattered here and there through the story like breadcrumbs, providing just enough information to convey the stakes involved but not getting in the way of what is, at its heart, a simple story. We have a man on a mission behind enemy lines, cut off from outside help and hopelessly outnumbered.

It’s a familiar enough scenario, but distinct elements set it apart. First comes the setting; a nightmarish cityscape of rubbish-filled streets, crumbling buildings, and urban decay. Crucially, although the story takes place over the best part of a day, Carpenter never allows daylight to intrude. The apocalypse has already happened here, even though the outside world is still hanging on by its fingernails. Cinematographer Dean Cundey and Production Designer Joe Alves combine their skills to create a coherent world that seems all too credible. Eccentric genius Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) may be refining petrol in his front room with the aid of a small oil derrick, but it’s just crazy enough to seem perfectly feasible. Events also play out to a superb electronic score by Carpenter and Alan Howarth, which helps create the unique ambience that sets the film apart as much as the dynamic, visceral action and its iconic anti-hero.

Russell’s performance as Plissken is note-perfect. The snarling, almost bored line delivery, the leather jacket and eye patch, the razor stubble and burning cigarette, he’s the whole package; a Man with No Name for the pulp sci-fi universe. Crucially, he’s not a pumped-up body-builder throwing out corny one-liners while he effortlessly offs the bad guys. Instead, he’s a man who makes mistakes, gets seriously hurt and is forced to constantly improvise rather than being permanently one wisecrack ahead of his enemies. The film is dark and cynical enough that we genuinely don’t know if he will make it out before his head explodes, and that keeps the audience with him every step of the way.

Originally, the film included an opening scene where Russell is caught while pulling a bank heist with partner Taylor (Joe Unger). Carpenter cut this for pace, preferring that the audience be thrown straight into the main story. That’s a valid reason, of course, but there’s a far better one; during the sequence, Russell goes back for Unger in a futile effort to save him from the cops. Retaining this would have undermined the mystique established in his scenes with Van Cleef and confirmed by the constant references to his rumoured death. Yes, his humanity does peep through a tiny bit on occasion in the finished film, but that’s much later in the proceedings and feels earned by his interactions with the other characters. In the beginning, the audience thinks that Plissken is capable of anything.

These other characters are vividly brought to life by an excellent ensemble headed by the legendary Ernest Borgnine. The interplay between his amiable Cabbie, Stanton’s unscrupulous, fast-talking Brain and Adrienne Barbeau’s Maggie feels completely natural and unforced, a testament to three professionals who make it look so effortless. Englishman Pleasance may seem a strange choice for an American President, but, again, he’s an absolute joy to watch, by turns pompous, cowardly and borderline psychotic. Van Cleef is also riveting as the police chief who may be enjoying his job a little too much, and his scenes with Russell are a masterclass in economy and understatement.

There’s also a lot of attention given to the more minor roles, with actors given unusual signature looks, thanks to excellent work by the costume and makeup departments. Frank Doubleday’s hissing henchman Romero is the most obvious example, but the same care and attention are present with characters that appear only briefly. And who can forget wrestler Ox Baker, whose startling appearance and physique give Russell a truly uncomfortable few minutes in the arena towards the end of the picture?

The film was a box office hit on release, making four times its original budget, but it proved to have an even greater afterlife on home media, cementing its reputation as a cult classic. What isn’t obvious watching the film, even all these years later, is what a small production budget Carpenter had at his disposal, a scant 6 million dollars. It’s a testament to the creativity and professionalism of the entire production crew that they could create so much with so little. In particular, some of the miniature work is stunning.

Some of the tech employed by Van Cleef’s police force looks hopelessly outdated now, but it works because it complements the grungy, rundown aesthetic of the city. State-of-the-art computer animation and images would look too clean and out of place, as would smartphones and CGI. This is a real world with a solid, practical existence, not the smooth perfection of a virtual environment created on a laptop. Similarly, we may not see much of the world outside the prison, but its rough edges help establish that it’s teetering on the brink, emphasising the last-gasp, Hail Mary nature of Russell’s mission.

One place where Carpenter’s film really hit home was with European audiences and filmmakers. The explosion of the home video in the early 1980s opened up a brand new market for the Italian Film Industry in particular, which had been in the doldrums for a few years after the golden age of Spaghetti Westerns, Mafia thrillers, Giallo, Eurospys and Peplum. Carpenter’s film and George Miller’s ‘Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior’ (1982) provided a template for all kinds of cut-price post-apocalyptic action that swamped high street rental stores over the next few years.

Carpenter began his filmmaking career with the science-fiction project, ‘Dark Star’ (1974), created with Dan O’Bannon, who would later write the screenplay for ‘Alien’ (1979), among several other notable films. Although it would be a few years before the film attained the status of a cult classic, it opened doors for him, and slasher ‘Halloween’ (1978) followed, becoming one of the most financially successful independent films of all time and birthing a franchise that is still ongoing at the time of writing (and may never end!) His subsequent career may be inconsistent in terms of financial success, but all his films crackle with creativity and ideas. Ironically, one of his failings is that broadly speaking, the more budget he’s been given, the less successful the project. Carpenter and Russell collaborated on the sequel ‘Escape from L.A.’ (1996), which had a budget almost ten times that of the original but only made back just over half its costs.

A classic and a benchmark of action and science-fiction cinema. Many followed; only a tiny handful got anywhere near it.

Matchless (1967)

Matchless_(1967)‘A spy plot as flawless as her beauty – as reckless as her body!’

A foreign correspondent gets into a bit of bother behind the Iron Curtain and ends up incarcerated in a Chinese prison. Luckily, his kindness to an ancient inmate results in the gift of a ring that allows him to become invisible. Recruited by the U.S. security forces, his first mission is to infiltrate the organisation of a megalomaniac who has put world domination high on his agenda.

Cheerful action comedy which walks the line between some serious Eurospy action and out and out spoof. This weeks ‘Bond on a Budget’ is American actor Patrick O’Neal who finds himself embroiled in the nefarious schemes of nasty rich businessman Donald Pleasance, who rocks a neat beard-tache combo and a pair of funky shades. We never really find out what he’s up to but there’s some vials of nasty looking chemicals in a bank vault in Germany and he likes to fix boxing matches using a ringside hypnotist. He’s just evil ok?

Neal makes a refreshingly fallible secret agent, swapping smarm and self-assurance for more of a friendly ‘bull in a china shop’ approach as he lurches from one crisis to another, armed mostly with an eye roll and a ready quip. He has to disrobe for invisibility purposes, and some strategic camera angles add to the humour long before the similar, but more obvious gags in ‘Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery’ (1997).

Matchless (1967)

‘Ladies, I can explain…just give me a minute…’

The story’s nothing special, betraying few original concepts or touches, but the action is decently staged, including a car chase late on which somewhat implausibly involves travelling by train. The supporting cast help proceedings along with Pleasance delivering a childish and spiteful villain, perennial bad guy Henry Silva laughing like a lunatic and sexy Nicoletta Machiavelli and Elisabetta Wu providing good value as a pair of femme fatales.

The most interesting player here though is heroine Ira Von Fürstenberg, birth name: Her Serene Highness Princess Virginia Carolina Theresa Pancrazia Galdina of Fürstenberg. Yes, she was a real life Italian Princess, going the reverse Grace Kelly route and, in fact, being romantically linked with Prince Rainier after Kelly’s death in the 1980s. Von Fürstenberg actually married for the first time (to a Prince, naturally) in 1955 at the age of 15, apparently against her wishes. Two sons resulted; one was a Mexican Olympian and the other died of massive organ failure in a Bangkok prison. Her acting career may never have reached the heights but she’s a lively presence here, and exhibits more screen presence than many a European beauty of the time, although she does look dubbed on the English print. She best remembered now for her role in Mario Bava’s ‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’ (1970).

Considering content and plot development, this runs a little long at 100 minutes, and some tightening in the editing suite would undoubtedly have helped with the pacing. But the cast is personable and, although it fails to rise above the pack of similar capers coming out of continental Europe at the time, it’s a pleasant enough ride.

Jaguar Lives! (1979)

Jaguar_Lives_(1979)‘Look, I’m sure you and your little bulldog didn’t just fly in to see the cows.’

After his partner is killed on a mission, Jonathan Cross retires as a secret agent. When a series of high level assassinations occur in the Middle East, he’s persuaded to return because it appears that the culprit may have been responsible for the death of his friend…

After ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973) star Bruce Lee became a global phenomenon, there were plenty of attempts to launch real-life martial artists as the successor to the late superstar. Joe Lewis was one; a man who Lee himself considered ‘the Greatest Karate Fighter of all time’ and one of only 5 men to defeat Chuck Norris in competition. Unfortunately, the only acting experience he had was a bit part in Matt Helm flick ‘The Wrecking Crew’ (1968) over a decade earlier, and his lack of experience was cruelly exposed in his first starring vehicle.

Obviously, the film was intended as a rival to the Bond franchise with Lewis as an agent who could use his fists and feet to deadly effect, rather than a Walther PPK. The concept is certainly a decent one, but is scuppered not only by Lewis’ lack of presence, but by a weak script and indifferent direction. The plot meanders confusingly, often seeming to be just an excuse to send Lewis from one exotic location to another and to meet one guest star after another. These guest stars never appear in any scenes together, which is not a good sign. Also the final revelation of the villain’s secret identity should come as a surprise to no one.

It’s the impressive role of guest stars that is likely to be the reason anyone seeks this film out now. It’s probably no coincidence that these provide several links to the Bond franchise. First up, Lewis’ handler is Mrs Ringo Starr – the lovely Barbara Bach from ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977), and, later on, he runs into Bond villains Donald Pleasance from ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967), Christopher Lee from ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (1974) and Joseph Wiseman from ‘Dr. No’ (1962), making his final film appearance.

Jaguar Lives (1979)

‘I’ll come with you so long as I don’t have to wear a shirt.’

Elsewhere he tangles with 1960s ‘It Girl’ Capucine and Western icon Woody Strode. Also present is film director John Huston, whose ill-judged acting career included Euro-bombs like ‘Tentacles’ (1977) and demented ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) knock off ‘The Visitor’ (1978). None of these famous names makes much of an impression, with the notable exception of Pleasance, who has fun as the unhinged dictator of a banana republic.

The action and combat sequences could have saved the film, of course, but there’s little stunt work and the fight choreography is predictable and flat. Given Lewis’ lack of star quality, the combination of all these negative factors makes for an unsatisfying experience. Perhaps the most memorable moment is the climactic face-off on the battlements of an old castle. Not because there’s anything remarkable about the sequence itself; just that it was the middle of the night a few seconds earlier.

The final scene hints at sequels but it was no surprise when they failed to appear.

Gold of the Amazon Women (1979)

Gold of The Amazon Women (1979)‘In your world men uses women; here women uses men.’

An explorer searches the jungle for the legendary Seven Cities of Gold, pursued by an international drug dealer who wants the riches for himself. Both parties run up against a tribe of female amazon warriors, who don’t take kindly to them, or men in general really…

What looks at first glance like a project with cult possibilities turns out to be nothing more than a tired, slapdash movie made for late 1970s American television. The presence of Stanley Ralph Ross as producer and writer (under a pseudonym and no wonder!) suggests that this may have started out life as a spoof but there’s little evidence of that in the final product. He’d contributed scripts to both Adam West’s ‘Batman’ TV show and Lynda Carter’s ‘Wonder Woman’ but any wit or invention is noticeable by its complete absence here.

Proceedings begin at the Discover’s Club in New York where an old man shanghais disillusioned adventurer Bo Svenson into listening to his wild tales of wealth and treasure deep in the amazon. In moments he has two arrows in the back, courtesy of a pair of scantily dressed women lurking on a nearby skyscraper. You’ve got to wonder how they made it through customs dressed like that! And how they made it to the US at all, given it turns out the tribe know nothing about aircraft. Oh, well, I suppose they could have walked… Anyways, Svenson grabs comic ‘fish out of water’ sidekick Richard Romanus (who doesn’t get to do any comedy) and five minutes later they’re avoiding various assassination attempts by villain Donald Pleasance and a couple of renegade Amazonians. Which brings up an interesting point: if Pleasance has these two leggy natives on his side why don’t they simply show him where the tribe live and then where the cities are? Why does he need to obtain the map from Svenson or bother with him at all?

This is all very weak stuff indeed. The first half mainly consists of Pleasance and his girls shooting at Svenson and Romanus, followed by some half-baked jungle shenanigans which feature a tribe of anonymous lovelies ruled by 60’s poster child Anita Ekberg; forever remembered for dancing in the Trevi fountain in Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960). Sadly, almost 20 years later, her career in leading roles was almost over and the generic dialogue she’s landed with here does her few favours. There’s a slight attempt at addressing gender politics with two of the warriors fighting over Svenson’s services (yes, those kind!) before it’s all interrupted by a plastic crocodile and the big man has to save the day himself (the women not being capable, of course).

Gold of The Amazon Women(1979)

‘I wish Quentin would hurry up and get here…’

It’s hard to convey the lack of energy that pervades the entire film. Everyone here is just going through the motions; mechanically hitting their marks and delivering their lines. Svenson shambles amiably from one scene to another waiting for Quentin Tarantino to turn up and revive his flagging career, and Pleasance delivers his usual sinister, but whiny, villain while probably thinking about what he was going to have for lunch.

With the constraints on network television in the late 1970s, both financially and in terms of content, this was never going to be anything more than a formulaic adventure but that still seems insufficient excuse for the sheer banality on offer.

Weary, boring and with no features of interest at all.