Saturday, September 21, 2019

Dojo Classics - The Escapes Of Snake Plissken!

The saga of Snake Plissken is that of the ultimate American anti-hero.

Sometimes characters get the anti-hero label and frankly they don't deserve it. There is a strain of fundamental immorality that must needs attach to any character deserving of the title. All too often the creators wimp out on the truly dark aspects of their characters. Not so with John Carpenter's Snake Plissken. Here's an anti-hero for the ages.

We first meet the infamous Snake Plissken in the exquisitely crafted Escape from New York from 1980. This movie, made for a mere five million dollars, offers up one of the most memorable characters in cinema. Snake Plissken, with his glaring single eye,his evocative uniform, and his hard-bitten whisper, etches himself in the memory of everyone who meets him. A dark update of Eastwood's "Man With No Name", Snake is a very very bad man. But sometimes you need very very bad men.

I'd imagine most everyone has seen this movie, so I won't belabor with a summary. But if by some chance you haven't, it's a must for any sci-fi adventure devotee. The ooze of the sharp-toothed henchman Romero, the grit of the two-fisted police Captain Hauk, the banter of an affable New York cabbie named "Cabbie", and the raw sex cascading from bombshell Maggie are necessary additions to the mental cache of any true fan of adventure.

This movie is magnetic in its appeal. Once you start to watch Snake, you are rarely allowed to take your eyes off him as he deals with the populations of a New York City cut off from the world and populated by criminals. Plissken walks the streets confronted by constant choices about what to do, who to save, and he doesn't always make the choice that John Wayne would make. With the grit of early James Bond, he assesses each dilemma and makes his decision. He tries to save a woman from cannibals here, but allows a woman to be raped there. It's always a choice, each and every time, making each decision more brutal. But Snake never backs away.

In classic romantic fashion these criminals of this world seem far more interesting than the good folk beyond the walls. Living close to death makes them hug to life, however grim that life might be. America as a police state is something that seems more and more possible each and every day. While NYC has recovered from the avalanche of crime which made it a likely spot for an isolated prison community, the widening chasm between parts of American culture make this idea of locking up the "others" in our culture all too imaginable alas.

And that idea got picked up in the 90's sequel of the Snake Plissken saga. Escape from L.A. is not nearly the movie the original is. That's necessary to say. The mood of the original was almost magic, and impossible to recreate. But this tale of a California demolished and isolated by earthquakes and populated by the unclean of a increasingly intolerant America makes too much damn sense in our modern world. The desire to kick out those that don't fit the profile of "good Americans" is a sub-text of too many political and financial conversations in our country today.

Snake is just as nasty in this one as the first, if not more since age has presumably shown him even more of his fellow man's hollow attitudes. The dysfunction and cruelty of the Los Angeles in this story is more hectic and far less sensible than in the first movie. The sense of out and out satire is stronger, undermining our ability to invest in the characters.

But it's still a clever romp for all that with some neat spins on the original flick. In both movies the national authority comes in for a beating, but in the sequel the criticism elevates to cartoonish proportions alas. Reality can be seen, but not necessarily felt. In the original the depravity of the larger society is less evidence as individuals still seem to make some difference.  The ending is dark though, plenty so.  If you've never escaped alongside Snake Plissken, then it's high time you did.

UPDATE: Digging these out and giving them a look after a few years, I find I like Escape from New York even more but Escape from L.A. even less. The former is an original yarn with all sorts of splendid touchstones to other films and genres as well as creating in an economical fashion a bleak miserable world in which nonetheless a little hope and love can find a way. The latter is just a copy of the former, attempting to recreate beats and giving up a few good jokes along the way, but defeating itself with its over-the-top utterly impossible action sequences -- fun to watch but complete fantasy. Despite an even more pointed political context there's just not enough edge keep the movie involving.

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