Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau
Plot: Following a 400% increase in crime in 1988, Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison. However when Air Force One is hijacked and crashed into Manhattan leading the President (Pleasence) to be captured by “The Duke” (Hayes). Now its down to former special forces soldier Snake Pliskin to rescue him in 22 hours or the explosives planted in his neck will explode.
Review: One of the key films of John Carpenter’s early filmography it also marks the start of his collaborations with Kurt Russell, which would not only see Russell playing some of his most memorable roles as it always seems that both of them where at their best when they are collaborating. Of course it was a pairing which almost never came to be as the financial backer AVCO Embassy Pictures had wanted to cast either Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones for the role of Snake, with Carpenter especially concerned that Bronson was both too old for the role as well as fearing that he would take over the film production. Russell though was equally an unlikely choice seeing how at this point in his career he was best known for his roles in Disney comedies than anything close to the tough guy action role he gets to play here.
Unquestionably Russell embodies the role of Snake who is every bit the 80’s action hero with that eyepatch and vest combo, let alone the awful snake tattoo on his stomach and yet somehow he manages to make Snake come across like the total bad ass he is as he snarls his way though pretty much every encounter while using the quiet moments to light another cigarette. Right from the start though its clear that he has no loyalty to anyone but himself and no doubt had he not had explosives put in his neck it’s likely he would have made his escape at the first opportunity rather than do anything to help the government he long lost any faith in.
Despite the title here St. Louis, Illinois stands in for New York due to the budget limitations while Carpenter taps into a vibe similar to Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” with his vision of a rundown Manhattan where the gangs and criminals have been left to govern themselves with “The Duke” standing on top of the pile as he cruises around the streets with his gang in his heavily customised ride complete with chandeliers on the bonnet as Isaac Hayes plays the character like something out of a blaxploitation movie as much like with “The Warriors” here Carpenter clearly has created for himself within the walls of this prison a world where he can toss in any number of random or colourful ideas he wants including throwing in a Punk Jim Jarmusch.
One of the most surprising aspects of this film though is in the pacing for while it might promise a none stop action fest, Carpenter actually restrains himself when it comes to the action slowly building the tension of Snake sneaking around the ruins of the former city as he tries to locate the president. At the same time this also means we get to see him find alliances with Ernest Borgnine’s taxi driver “Cabbie” aswell as as the Duke’s advisor “Brain” (Stanton) though its always clear that Snake’s interest are always with what is going to benefit him first. Carpenter should also receive credit for setting up what we assume to be a potential ally for Snake only to have her suddenly snatched away by the frenzied gang who have taken over the sewers.
However by pushing “The Duke” so late into the film it does feel at times like we never get to see him as the credible threat that Carpenter would like him to be, for while he might command the respect of his followers he feels like he is lacking development for his character especially in terms of backstory and how he came to be on top of the pile. That being said Hayes has enough presence as he recycles his “Truck Turner” performance to make such things a minor issue here.
Once the action starts though there is a lot of fun sequences throughout the film as Snake battles gang members including being forced into a battle to the death with real life wrestler Ox Baker. We also get a down to the wire chase across the bridge out of Manhattan with the Duke hot on their tails. Of course if there was any doubt about Russell being able to handle the action scenes, they are soon squashed here as he throws tasty looking punches at goons or engages in heated gun battles as he embodies the character who refreshingly compared to a lot of his 80’s counterparts is surprisingly grounded in reality and works perfectly in this world.
A fun ride throughout and its fun to remind ourselves of how great these early Carpenter films where, while at the same time giving a truly iconic action hero who sadly he wasn’t able to capture the same magic with the second time round with “Escape From LA” but viewed for its own merits its unquestionably a fun romp from a master firing on all cylinders.