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If You Liked ‘Lockout’, Then You Should Rent This…

Lockout/Escape from New York
Open Road Films/MGM

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, 'Rocchi's Retro Rental' looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]

In the upcoming ‘Lockout,’ hardened convict Guy Pearce has to rescue the President’s daughter (Maggie Grace) from an outer-space prison. Putting aside the question of how, exactly, you get the President’s daughter from Washington D.C. to space (it’s not like she could take a left turn at Albuquerque…) I have to be blunt: I’m excited to see this, if only that it’ll remind me, no matter how distantly, of John Carpenter’s 1981 science-fiction exploitation tough-guy fest ‘Escape From New York.’

Set in a future gone mad (a future year of 1997) ‘Escape’ begins as Snake Plissken – Kurt Russell, bearded and sporting an eye patch, and reluctantly hired by the studio as they only knew him from the kid-friendly Disney films and nice-guy TV work he’d done up to then – is temporarily released from jail to save the President (Donald Pleasance), whose plane has crashed in Manhattan, which was turned into a prison long ago. (And again, this makes no sense. Why would you make Manhattan a prison when New Jersey is right there, begging for it? But never mind.) But Carpenter, even working with the biggest budget he’d ever had, stuck to his guns and started Russell on a tough-guy career path he may never have equaled after his work in this film.

The other great thing about ‘Escape’, which was, ironically, mostly shot in St. Louis, is how it surrounds Russell with a similar set of tough-guy actors. Lee Van Cleef is the man who gives Plissken his assignment and injects him with a micro-bomb to make sure he’s on board with the plan. Plissken meets New York’s last cabbie – played by, of course, Ernest Borgnine – and also runs afoul of New York’s de facto leader, Isaac Hayes’ Duke.  Adrienne Barbeau, the hot-but-stern face of so much ’80s exploitation, and Carpenter’s wife at the time, is also along for the ride.  As for Pleasance – a real P.O.W., experiences he brought to the table for both ”The Great Escape’ and this film – is as wormy, squirmy and bad a fictional head of state you can ask for.

But again, it’s Russell who heads the cast and the film, verging on parody but dancing with that line elegantly, even in combat boots. From an age when an action hero didn’t have to be in the zero-percent-body-fat category – Plissken’s a lumpy, large man – he’s as hard-bitten as you could ask for, the perfect existentialist loner. Informed that the President’s plane has gone down over New York, Plissken holds it for a beat, deadpan: “The President of what?”  The implication – breezed over, here, but  beaten to death in the let’s-pretend-that-didn’t-happen 1996 sequel  ‘Escape from L.A.’, which managed to put a spin on the cliché by being too much too late – is that maybe America isn’t worth saving.

‘Lockout’ may be a thin riff on ‘Escape,’ but even strained and sanitized by fine-mesh layers and levels of rip-off and ‘reinvention,’ ‘Escape from New York’ still has plenty of pulpy power, especially thanks to Russell, but you have to give points to Carpenter’s cheap, go-for-broke direction.  The wreckage of the President’s plane (a real plane, sawed into three parts) was smuggled to the set in the dead of night, as Carpenter and the production lacked permit and permission: Advantage, Carpenter.

But ultimately, ‘Escape’ has one thing that ‘Lockout’ doesn’t: New York. Even a fake New York adds resonance and fun to the strangest and sleekest moments. Borgnine’s cabbie simply demonstrates that after the apocalypse, New York is just going to be even more like it always was, and little touches (like an oil rig nodding away in the background when Snake’s having a meeting in the city) also turn the title location into a character in and of itself. Again, ignore the sequel and just take in ‘Escape’ for all the go-for-broke B-movie glory it offers and the pleasure of how well it understands, like ‘Lockout,’ that all you really need for a two-fisted action film is a few things: A place, a plan, a “hero” and a hostage.

James Rocchi is currently a film critic for MSN Movies and an entertainment correspondent for The Toronto Star. He has previously written for The San Francisco Chronicle, Aol’s Cinematical, American Movie Classics and Redbox.  He is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics of America and the Los Angeles Film Critic’s Association.

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