Minutia Madness: Escape From New York Edition
By Bret Dorman
(As always, SPOILERS! may apply to the movie in discussion.)
Everyone knows what makes a movie good. Blurbs like “compelling”, “powerful”, and “explosive non stop thrill ride that will leave you on the edge of your seat!” are common place on movie posters. In reviews (including my own) people point out how the direction is “great”, how the writing is “awesome”, and how the acting is “wonderful”. Every once in a while you can find a really great essay from a smart film critic (a real one) or film maker that actually explains why a movie is good and helps you as a viewer become a better film watcher.
But what about those small moments that fall in between the cracks? I understand the need to talk about a movie in the broad sense, its the easiest most SPOILER! free way of saying if you liked or didn’t like a movie. I prefer people to talk in specifics, to actually know why something is good or bad. But this goes beyond all that. This is blowing the tiniest detail way out of proportion. This is what makes me a film nerd. This is Minutia Madness!!!
Escape From New York
Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle (aka the actor who played ‘The Shape’ aka Michael Myers when he’s wearing the mask in Halloween); Directed by John Carpenter
One of the most underutilized things in movies today is character quirks. I don’t just mean a realistic character with one quirk to make it look like you tried, but a whole character who is not really close to even being a realistic human. It’s nice to see movies that embrace silliness or weirdness and let go of reality to bring you into the world of the film. Escape from NY is one of those movies. Terrific world building makes you feel like you are in one of the worst places on Earth, the maximum security prison that is Manhattan Island.
Now we all know Kurt Russell as Snake is a badass (“Get a new President.”) and Isaac Hayes as The Duke is a madman (chandelier headlights). Snake goes his mission solo. His stealth and reputation both help and hinder as he is on a very strict time table. Frenemies like The
Cabbie, The Brain, and Maggie are unreliable and untrustworthy. While the balance of the world is on the line, Snake ultimately cares about just saving his own skin. Contrast that with The Duke, who thrives off his power and reputation. His name instills fear into Snake’s would be allies. He has an army of loyal followers all willing to do his bidding for a taste of the “good (imprisoned) life.”
No henchman is more loyal, more willing, and even scarier, more capable than The Duke of New York A-Number One’s Number Two. Romero, the pale, goth, slinky, slimy, deadly creep who seems ready to come unhinged at any moment yet always remains under his Master’s command. Frank Doubleday plays the role with the most off-putting precision. Imagine you work for the NY penal system as a guard. You hear horror stories. The crazies are left to their own devices. Complete chaos. Then… The President’s plane is hijacked, crashed, and he is taken hostage. You are chosen to accompany Police Commissioner Hauk into the wasteland itself (made only slightly assuring due to the fact Hauk is played by Lee Van Cleef). You don’t know what to expect. You land. You see nothing but the ruins of what once used to be (arguably) the capital of The World. The President’s plane lays in pieces, on fire. Then, from the shadows you hear a cackle… and Romero appears. He delivers this message:
The way Carpenter stays on the long walk is fantastic. There’s no reason to rush this creepiness. Romero struts with a swagger to let you know he’s assured of himself, but also is off kilter just enough to let you know he’s dangerous. He looks like if one of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan opened the Puzzle Box from Hellraiser. The speech itself is simple and non-negotiable. The count down is haunting. But what about this makes it Minutia Madness worthy?
Watching the clip you may have noticed how Doubleday drops his head, then slumps his shoulders before steadily lifting them up and reciting his given speech. That’s the magical moment. Upon multiple viewings we know Romero is the right hand man to The Duke. He doesn’t call the shots. He just executes them. So for him to slump over like that is like a machine turning on and getting ready to play a message. In this scenario you can’t have someone forget, stumble or stutter over the lines. They need to be able to recite them with no emotion… and give a vampiric exhale after as a sign of victory. The robotic start up conveys to us that this man takes what he does seriously and is good at it. We know through basic movie archetypes what Snake is capable of, even if he puts on a tough guy anti-hero exterior. We don’t know what Romero is capable of and that makes his a wild card. A true threat.
It’s chances like these that more actors need to take when approaching the small roles. It’s moves like this, complete understanding of the character, no matter how weird they are, that make a role memorable. And it’s memorable roles like this that live on in movie history. Doubleday’s eccentricity might fit in a bit too well with Carpenter’s eerie background, letting some of the other characters stand out a bit more. But Minutia Madness isn’t about the things that stand out. It’s about the things so perfectly subtle they deserve extra praise.
We all know where the story goes from this frightening jumping off point… Snake flies a plane onto the WTC, meets a bunch of crazies, kills half of them, threatens to kill the other half, beats up a guy three times his size, shows off his awesomely manly snake tattoo, and gets into one too many close calls to show us why so many people thought he was dead. Escape from NY doesn’t have TOO high a body count, but it’s enough to reach double digits twice over. And of all those deaths, the weirdest and most quirky of course belongs to the man of the hour, Mr. Doubleday (giving us one last creepy… and sad, exhale).
So what do you think? Is this machine like startup enough to throw the movie into slightly unpredictable territory? Or am I just crazy for focusing on this minute detail?