Monday, June 21, 2021

30 Years Ago: The Rocketeer (1991)

A strange factoid about superhero movies is that period pieces rarely succeed at the box office.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1996), and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) are all examples of superhero movies set in yesteryear that failed to succeed with audiences.  

In 2011, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger beat that long-standing curse. Perhaps that success happened because the director had faced the same problem once before with 1991’s The Rocketeer, a brilliant and beautiful genre film that never achieved the success it so abundantly deserves.

Why do fans prefer modern superheroes over ones operating in the past?  

Perhaps it is because the superhero template is -- broadly -- similar to the Western format, only with some technological upgrades. Substitute a cool car like the Batmobile for Silver, and a man in a cape for a cowboy in a ten gallon hat, and one can detect how alike the genres truly are. 

In both brands of stories, singular men (or sometimes women) tackle corruption and evil, and then, largely, go on their way…until needed again.  

So take a superhero hero movie out of the present, and you might just as well be watching a Western.  

Or perhaps it is just too difficult for us to suspend disbelief in a period superhero film. Audiences might accept a man in a cape fighting criminals in a modern day urban jungle, but if it happened in, say, 1939, how come nobody ever heard of the guy?  

My point is that a period superhero not only asks us to believe in one fantasy element (a person with super powers, for instance), but two, if you count alternate history.

One can speculate any number of reasons why modern audiences will readily accept an Indiana Jones, but not a Kit Walker or Lamont Cranston.  The point is, I suppose, that audiences seem to prefer superheroes with a hard, technological -- even futuristic -- edge.  We want them saving our world, today, operating on the bleeding edge of now. 

And in the case of The Rocketeer, it’s a crying shame that our tastes run in this direction.  As critic David Ansen observed, regarding the film, it is “determinedly sweet,” and features “action scenes that are more bouncy than bone-crunching.”

Because of such virtues, I have always considered The Rocketeer the spiritual heir to Superman: The Movie (1978), my choice -- still -- for the best superhero film of all time. 

At one point in The Rocketeer, a character notes “you’d pay to see a man to fly, wouldn’t you?” And indeed, Superman’s famous tag-line was “You’ll believe a man can fly.”  

People flocked to Superman: The Movie in 1978 (in the immediate post-Watergate Age) because they wanted to dream about just such a thing being a reality; they wanted to “believe again.”

The Rocketeer understands perfectly that brand of emotional longing in general, and the long-standing human fascination with flight in particular. 

It depicts the magic of leaving terra firma behind as pilots attempt to touch Heaven itself.  Indeed, the film’s hero, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) discusses flight in precisely -- nay, explicitly -- those terms. 

In the film’s denouement, he discusses wearing the film’s rocket pack and getting as close to Heaven as is possible for a living mortal. “It was the closest I’ll ever get,” he says.

In pure human terms, The Rocketeer is very much about that yearning to touch the sky, and few modern superhero pictures feature such a direct and delightful, human through-line. Instead, they get bogged down in character backgrounds, villainous plans, and byzantine back-stories.

Beyond that accomplishment, The Rocketeer lovingly (and meticulously) revives 1930s Los Angeles, and features a great turn by Timothy Dalton as a flamboyant villain.  

Significantly, there is no angst in The Rocketeer.

There is no trademark genre darkness, cynicism or bitterness.  

The film doesn’t focus on revenge, either.  

Instead, The Rocketeer is really about joy; the joy of flight, and, in a way that can’t be diminished, the fact that love of country can bring people of unlike backgrounds together. The movie, after all, ends with Italian mobsters, a failed pilot, government agents and Howard Hughes banding together to stop a Nazi invasion.

What could be more American, or more ennobling, than that “flight” of fancy?

“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”

A young pilot, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) becomes embroiled, accidentally in a battle between Federal agents and gangsters. Through a strange set of coincidences, he ends up with his hands on a new super-weapon, a rocket-pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) called the X-3.

Hoping to make a living after his plane is destroyed in the battle, Secord secretly keeps the X-3, and has his resourceful mechanic friend, Peeve (Alan Arkin) make him a helmet to go with the rocket.  

Before long, he emerges as a hero the press dubs “The Rocketeer.”

Unfortunately, the number 3 box office draw in America, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), is actually a Nazi spy and has been tasked with stealing the X-3 and returning it to the Fatherland.   He is allied with mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), though Valentine doesn’t know Sinclair’s true allegiance.

Sinclair attempts to ingratiate himself with Secord’s aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) to get close to the X-3.  When that doesn’t work, however, he resorts to force. He abducts Jenny and makes a bargain with Secord: the rocket pack for the girl.

Unfortunately, Howard Hughes and the U.S. government also want the rocket pack back, and Cliff must make a difficult choice.

“How did it feel? Strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of Hell?

The Rocketeer is adapted from the work of graphic novel writer-illustrator Dave Stevens, who first published the title in 1982.  And overall, the title, like the film, is an homage to and pastiche of the pulpy genre entertainment of yesteryear.

For example, the visual look of the title character seems inspired by Commando Cody, a hero who wears a leather flight suit, a bullet-shaped helmet, and a jet pack. The character head-lined in King of the Rocketmen (1952) and Radar Men of the Moon (1953).

The film, however, focuses much of its artistic vision on the 1930s milieu. The audience encounters Hollywood legends Clark Gable and W.C. Fields, for example. A singer in the South Seas Club croons tunes from Cole Porter.  And the soldier villain, Lothar (Tiny Ron) is a dead ringer for Rondo Hatton (1894-1946), a screen actor who suffered from Acromegaly, and put his fearsome visage to menacing use in films like The Brute Man (1946).  

The film also reveals the evolution of the landmark Hollywood sign. It goes from reading Hollywoodland (in 1923) to reading Hollywood (1949), all because of a Nazi incursion on American soil.  And Neville Sinclair, of course, is a variation on film idol Errol Flynn (who was once believed to be a Nazi spy, oddly enough…).

One of the best moments in The Rocketeer, for my money, however is the Nazi propaganda film featured in the last act. In a sort of Art Deco (or Futura) style, we see an animated representation of the Nazi plan for world domination using the X-3.  The terrifying (but beautifully-wrought) imagery shows rocket men destroying Washington DC, burning the American flag, and raising the Swastika.  This short film sells perfectly (and cheaply) the threat that America faces.

Thanks to production designer Jim Bissell and director of photography Hiro Narita, The Rocketeer looks fantastic.  But just as powerful, if not more so, is the movie’s sense of heart, and innocence. 

After Secord saves a fellow pilot (dressed as a clown for an air show), and takes off using the rocket for the first time, the film veritably soars.  One might attribute this feeling of emotional flight to James Horner’s musical score, or to the setting -- wide open wheat fields under Big American Sky.  

Whatever the cause, this inaugural flight sequence is one of the few in superhero movie history that legitimately deserves comparison to the Smallville interlude in Donner’s Superman: the Movie.  The overwhelming feeling is for an age -- an innocence -- lost, but also a yearning for Americana and the American Dream. 

What is that American Dream? In films such as The Rocketeer it involves the achievement of something more than wealth or success.  It involves doing great things; breaking barriers; going where none have gone before. Touching the sky.

It is an indicator of The Rocketeer’s unfettered gentleness and innocence that its call to patriotism in the final act plays not as cheesy or overdone, but as authentically stirring. We see a mobster, Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) make common cause with G-Men to stop a threat to America’s future: Nazi soldiers.  

Then, after he implores Secord to “go get” the bad-guys, we get the glorious shot of The Rocketeer posed next to Old Glory herself, the American flag. The not subtle (yet still wonderful…) message behind this imagery is that Americans may have many, many differences, but in times of strife and crisis, they come together.  

Mobster or G-Man, Americans draw strength from one another and defend their country -- and the ideals of their country -- when they are threatened. I still remember seeing the film in the theater, and the audience hooted and hollered with raucous energy when the Valentine expressed his love of country, and his urging for Secord to fight the good fight.  It gives me chills thinking about it, even today.

In some way, superhero movies are really about (or should be about…) the things we can’t always do; the ideals we can’t always live by, even though we wish to. 

Like rising to the occasion in a crisis.  

Or strapping on a rocket pack and taking off into the sky; touching Heaven.  The Rocketeer absolutely understands this facet of the genre, and presents a kind of wish-fulfillment genre story of the highest order.

The Rocketeer is a light, joyous film that never focuses on special effects over people. The film’s feet never touch the ground, and the action scenes, particularly the final set-piece on the Nazi dirigible, are memorable and well-orchestrated.

So why didn’t audiences flock to the film? 

I think that goes back to my original point about audiences deliberately not-seeking out period superhero efforts. Even Captain America, Joe Johnston’s genre follow-up to The Rocketeer, eventually reaches the 21st century, right? Some people might see that development as hedging a bet; protecting against an undesirable outcome (financial failure).

Today, superhero films have largely become mechanical and formulaic. They give us everything we expect as part of some multi-media franchise experience (the teaser, the trailer, the second act surprise, and the post-credits reveal or preview for the next picture), but somehow forget to hold up as narratives, as movies that live and breathe and tell us something about human nature.

The Rocketeer makes us believe that a man (and America with him, in one of its darkest hours)…can fly.  

You’d pay to see that, wouldn’t you?

I know I would.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Thundarr the Barbarian in "City of Evil"

In “City of Evil,” Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel chase down Skullis, a diabolical wizard who has acquired a magical gauntlet from a human village near the ruins of Boston.

They retrieve the gauntlet, but Skullis stumbles into an experimental research laboratory from the twentieth century, and discovers a miniaturized city inside.  If he can get the gauntlet back, the sinister sorcerer will have the power to restore the metropolis to its full size, and turn its people into his new army.   

Skullis makes a deal with the citadel’s leader to help them return to the normal world, but he has not reckoned with Thundarr’s tenacity…

“City of Evil” is an interesting story, even if does raise some intriguing historical questions.  

Foremost among these is, simply, why is the Citadel is so advanced and futuristic when we know that the apocalypse occurred in 1994, when the world looked much as it does today. 

In other words, how come a city existed in 1994 with the technological to miniaturize itself? 

And since the city has survived in all the 2000 years since, why bother with returning to normal size?

The miniature city or society meanwhile is a great and familiar genre trope. A famous episode of The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) “And There Were Giants” concerned astronauts discovering a miniaturized city.  And a Year Two Space:1999 (1975 – 1977)  story, “Seed of Destruction, similarly, deals with the “Seed of Kalthon,” an object which, with massive infusions of energy, can restore an entire civilization to the universe at large.  

In the DC Supergirl mythology, the city of Kandor was miniaturized, as well, and held captive by Brianiac.

In Thundarr the Barbarian, the city -- I believe called Thebes -- is restored to normal size, and then almost immediately destroyed, with its denizens made homeless in a space of hours.  So the people who live there basically waited 2000 years safely for a return to normal size, and in less than a day, their city was destroyed.  That’s a pretty tragic story.

The visuals in this episode of Thundarr are as exciting and resonant as ever. We see a battle on a bridge and interstate highway near Boston, and there’s some great imagery of the Barbarian battling tiny warriors from the city on their jet glider vehicles.  They strafe by Skullis's face like angry bees and Thundarr notes “We’re under attack…but I see no attackers!”  Then Ookla the Mok swats the ships away handily..


Friday, June 18, 2021

Summer of '81: The Legend of the Lone Ranger


"Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear... The Lone Ranger rides again!"

Oh, if only that were so...

When I was a little boy living in New Jersey, a local TV station (WPIX, I think...) ran an afternoon block of heroic programming. First The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), then Batman (1966-1969) and then, finally...The Lone Ranger (1949-1957). 

This went on every weekday for a long time...and boy...I was in kiddie heaven. I remember some days begging my Mother to take me home from Brookdale Park so I could get home in time to see these TV programs!

Anyway, Clayton Moore portrayed the heroic Lone Ranger in the 1950s series (along with John Hart, for two years), and I admired the Lone Ranger as a child (and now, as a man) because of his moral creed. He didn't drink or smoke. Not only did he speak beautifully (never indulging in slang or jargon), but he believed that "all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world." Most importantly, the Lone Ranger never shot to kill.

Despite my love for the 1950s Lone Ranger TV series (and I even owned a complete set of Gabriel's 1973 10-inch Lone Ranger figures...), I would have certainly welcomed, by 1981, a modern take on the classic material; just as I had welcomed with open arms the updated Superman: The Movie (1978). 

But with The Legend of The Lone Ranger (1981), a notorious box office bomb, something went wrong. 

I watched The Legend of the Lone Ranger last week and was shocked anew at just how bad this film is. In fact, I was unpleasantly reminded of Tarzan: The Ape Man another 1981 film which failed to do justice to an iconic hero. At least Tarzan: The Ape Man has Bo Derek starring (and disrobing...) in it, and boasts a high-degree of camp value. The Legend of the Lone Ranger is just plodding.

Actually, The Legend of the Lone Ranger fails on three distinct fronts. But before I get to each particular failure, a brief re-cap is in order: The Legend of the Lone Ranger tells the story of the "man behind the mask" (as per the ballad of the Lone Ranger, performed by Merle Haggard).

In the Old West (Texas, 1854), young John Reid sees his parents brutally murdered by bandits and is taken in by friendly Indians to live as one of the natives. Reid's "blood brother" is Tonto, and at this early age, Reid decides irrevocably to follow "the trail of justice." Soon, however, he is removed from his Indian life by his older brother, Dan, a ranger who sends John back East to become an attorney.

Several years later, a grown John (Klinton Spilsbury) returns to the wild west hoping to make it a terrain where justice prevails, but in local "Del Rio," (a town in trouble, Merle Haggard tells us...) he finds that much of the territory is already in thrall to the power-hungry, psychotic Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), a warlord who seeks to kidnap President Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards). 

Before long, John, his brother Dan and a team of rangers are led into a Cavendish trap by a traitor in the ranger ranks and -- after a brutal gun fight -- left for dead.

Only John survives the massacre. He is nursed back to health by a now-adult Tonto (who happened by the crime scene at just the right moment...) and soon launches his quest for justice. But first, John must "dig a grave for John Reid" and become The Lone Ranger; a masked man who rides a white steed named Silver, and who uses silver bullets in combat.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger's first and most egregious failing is that it doesn't seem to know its audience (which, if you ask me, would include generations of "grown up" boys and girls who loved the TV show). By this, I mean that Legend of the Lone Ranger is the ugliest, gauziest, dustiest-looking western since Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980).

It's not just that the movie is unpleasant to's actually unpleasant to look at. You can hardly make out faces, the film is so gritty and soiled-looking. I would argue that this is precisely the wrong visual for any Lone Ranger production. We should be inspired by the beauty of the West, by those gorgeous wide open skies and natural landscapes; just as the Lone Ranger is himself inspired by the promise of America. I mean, I know dark things happen in the Lone Ranger's origin, but no one in their right mind would live in a Wild West that looked like this, forever inside its own whirling Dust Bowl.'

Secondly, this is a film that, in the first few minutes, depicts innocent Mrs. Reid (John's mother) dragged behind a horse by bandits, and then shot and killed at point-blank range. Later, the film doesn't cut away when two bandits are executed by Cavendish, and we see the bloody impact wounds blossom on their chests. I'm no prude, but the Lone Ranger in the past was a franchise that didn't exploit graphic violence. The Lone Ranger himself never killed his enemies; and furthermore lived by a code of justice that he applied to all: criminals and honest citizens alike. It's a mistake, I submit, given the history of the franchise, to revel in bloody demises like those depicted here. It seems antithetical to what the Lone Ranger is all about.

I'd also state that The Legend of the Lone Ranger doesn't know its audience because it makes several basic mistakes in franchise information and background. For instance, this film transforms heroic John Reid into a rookie attorney (!) not an experienced ranger, when he is involved in the massacre. It also establishes that he is a terrible shot, one whose skill is miraculously improved only when Tonto gives him silver bullets. In most incarnations of the Lone Ranger, Reid is a talented marksman and ranger before the events that change his life. Frankly, that origin makes more sense. Silver bullets aren't magic in and of themselves (though I guess they can kill werewolves). I just don't see how silver bullets make a person's aim more true, even if, according to Tonto, "silver is pure."

The Legend of the Lone Ranger's second, and perhaps most catastrophic failing is that it is dull beyond  conventional forms of measurement. This is an action movie that moves at a snail's pace. It takes thirty-eight long minutes just to get to the ranger massacre in the gully. It takes to forty-eight minutes to introduce Silver. Key scenes are notably and irrevocably dull. For instance, the moment when Reid tames Silver is extended relentlessly by slow motion photography (think of Tarzan's wrestling match with a boa in Tarzan the Ape Man), and becomes almost laughable in its duration. I'm a long-time admirer of composer John Barry, but his lugubrious, ponderous score only contributes to the sense that this movie is a dead weight around your shoulders...never ending, ugly, and with nothing of significance occurring. 

"Thrilling days of yesteryear?" 

You won't find them here.

The film's final flaw is simple: basic incompetence. Through the entire film, Klinton Salisbury's voice is badly dubbed by James Keach, and you can tell. Worse, in key moments, (particularly the horse whispering moment), it is obvious that Silver is played by at least two very different horses. You know a movie is in trouble when you have the time to notice that the lead horse is being stunt-doubled...

The only time this movie comes to life is when that inspiring William Tell Overture is dragged out of mothballs and the pulse quickens.

What a disappointment. The children of 1981 deserved better.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Summer of '81: For Your Eyes Only

After dispatching a deadly assassin in For Your Eyes Only (1981) James Bond (Roger Moore) makes a joke.  

He quips that the killer “had no head for heights.”

In a funny kind of way, the same observation could be made of this follow-up to Moonraker (1979). 

It has no head -- or appetite -- for heights, either.

Instead, For Your Eyes Only is a dedicated re-grounding of the James Bond mythos and one that deliberately dials down the silly humor of the previous entry. Instead of focusing on space age jokes, this Bond film obsesses on matters of earthbound import such as revenge.  

Virtually every aspect of this 1981 Bond entry suggests a back-to-basics approach in terms of the 007 character, his world, and the style of storytelling, even. 

For example, For Your Eyes Only opens with a scene reminding viewers of Bond’s deepest, most grievous loss, the death of his wife Tracy. After that painful memory, the film then proceeds through a gadget-less but fast-paced adventure in which Bond must depend not on technological trickery, but rather his own instincts and skills if he hopes to survive. 

Likewise, the film’s central car chase involves, approximately, the world’s least romantic-looking car.

As these and other facets of the film make abundantly plain, the intent in For Your Eyes Only was clearly not to make another jokey roller-coaster ride with flourishes of fantasy and outrageous humor, but a legitimate thriller instead, one with moments of significant suspense and high intrigue.

The filmmakers succeeded admirably and more than that, found a useful idea on which they could hang their tale.  The central leitmotif of For Your Eyes Only, as mentioned above, is revenge.

Is revenge right? 

Is it useful? 

It is it inevitable, given human nature, and human loss?

From the film’s pre-title sequence (featuring an unnamed but recognizable Blofeld…) and its Greek heroine’s quest to avenge patricide, to the violent rivalry between Kristatos and Columbo, For Your Eyes Only explores the concept of revenge fully, if not always deeply.

As Bond himself notes in the film’s final moments, revenge is “not the answer” to anything.

Beautifully shot, and remarkably suspenseful in a few notable places, For Your Eyes Only remains Roger Moore’s best turn as the iconic secret agent.

“The Chinese have a saying: Before setting out on revenge, dig two graves.”

The British spy ship St. Georges is struck by a mine at sea, and goes down before the officers can self-destruct its most vital system, the ATAC (Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator), which has the capability to transmit orders to England’s fleet of Polaris submarines.

When the Soviet Union’s General Gogol (Walter Gotell) learns that he could get his hands on the valuable device, he contacts an agent in Greece to acquire it for him. 

Meanwhile, James Bond, Agent 007 (Moore) is also tasked with obtaining the ATAC.

Bond’s first step in that hunt is to follow a hired gun named Gonzalez (Stefan Kalipha), the man is responsible for murdering a British operative, Havelock, and his wife, in the waters near the St. Georges’ last known position. 

Also determined to find -- and kill -- Gonzalez is Havelock’s lovely daughter, Melina (Carole Bouquet).

After Melina succeeds in her quest, Bond gets her to safety, and must follow his second lead instead: the man who paid Gonzalez for the Havelock hit: Emile Leopold Locque (Michael Gothard).

Bond travels to Italy in pursuit of Locque, and his contact there sets up a meeting with Arius Kristatos (Julian Glover), a Greek businessman and informant who has worked before for England. 

Kristatos informs Bond that Locque is employed by a criminal boss known as “The Dove,” or Columbo (Topol).

When Bond meets “The Dove” for himself, however, he learns that Kristatos has framed Columbo, and that Kristatos is a Soviet agent…the very man attempting to acquire the ATAC.

Racing against the clock, Bond and Melina retrieve the ATAC from the sunken St Georges, but Kristatos is aware of their location, and prepares to take possession of it for himself…

“That’s Détente. You don’t have it. I don’t have it.”

For Your Eyes Only is a back-to-basics Bond film, and a wonderful one at that. 

The film opens with sadness…and franchise history. 

We see Bond visiting the grave of his dead wife, and her tombstone is marked with the legend “We have all the time in the world.” 

This scene represents a remarkable bit of continuity with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), which is widely considered the biggest failure of the franchise.  It was so disliked a film for so long, in fact, that Tracy wasn’t even mentioned by name in the follow-up Bond film, Diamonds are Forever (1971).  

Bond was going after Blofeld with a vengeance in that film’s pre-title sequence, but there was not one word spoken about Bond’s marriage, his wife, or Tracy Draco.

Yet For Your Eyes Only remembers both Bond’s marriage, and the tragedy that followed the wedding. The first shots of the film are of a graveyard, and of Bond bringing flowers solemnly to Tracy’s grave.  

He doesn’t say anything -- his thoughts are private -- but there is heaviness about Moore’s Bond here.

But the significant point is that this is not Plastic Man. 

This is not Luke Skywalker, either. 

This is a man that has known love and tragedy in his life. Bond is a person like any other person, and one not immune to the dangers or vicissitudes of life.  That’s a key aspect of the literary Bond character, and one that needed to be projected immediately in For Your Eyes Only if there was to be a course correction from the outlandish (though undeniably entertaining…) Moonraker.

After the opening scene’s acknowledgment of Bond’s humanity and history, For Your Eyes Only goes to great lengths to keep the secret agent away from his trademark gadgetry. In fact, the gadgets in the film are deployed not as aids to Bond…but literally as jokes.  

The first such joke involves Bond’s Lotus Esprit.  He parks the stylish car, locks the door, and activates a “burglar protection system.” 

When bad guys attempt to break the unoccupied car’s windows, the Lotus explodes into a million pieces.  

Some burglar protection system! I think it’s called a “self-destruct device,” actually.

But the up-shot of the car’s destruction is that Bond cannot rely on his fancy ride to get him out of trouble. 

He will not have the benefit here of ejector seats, missile-launchers, or any other high-tech trickery.  He’s going to have to go it alone, with only his wits and instincts as co-pilots…

…in a Citroen 2CV, the pokiest, most light-weight car you can imagine.

Yet -- in what could be the motto for For Your Eyes Only -- Bond (and the filmmakers) turn this poky, light-weight, bright yellow car into a strength instead of a weakness.  In the exciting car chase that involves the Citroen, Bond finds that it is more maneuverable than his opponents’ big, heavy vehicles, and uses that quality to steal a win. 

This car chase sequence remains amazing, not only because it follows a joke about Bond’s gadgetry, but because it re-establishes viscerally Bond’s unparalleled skill as a driver. He’s got nothing else to fall back on here, and so he drives back-wards, downhill, and even weaves and dodges his way to success.  

As one would expect of a Bond film, the stunts in this sequence are spectacular, but it’s a nice de-glamorization of the Bond universe to see 007 driving not a very expensive sports car, but a clunker instead.

The only other gadget in the film is Q’s Identigraph, a device which allows Bond to identify Locque, using the data files of Interpol, etc.  

At one point, Q (Desmond Llewlyn) turns Locque’s nose into what Bond calls “a banana,” and again, the idea transmitted is simply that technology is fallible, and therefore not always useful. The skill of the user is the thing that matters, not the device itself. 

The film’s McGuffin, the ATAC (heir to the Lektor of From Russia with Love [1963]) transmits the same notion. The officers aboard the St. Georges are not able to destroy the device, and so all of England -- and the West itself -- is imperiled by the existence of a small, unassuming typewriter-like device.

If the gadgets are mightily de-romanticized in For Your Eyes Only, so are the schemes of the Bond villain, Kristatos in this case. 

As you may recall, Drax (Michael Lonsdale) in Moonraker sought to wipe out the human race from his space station in Earth orbit, and then re-seed the Earth with his hand-picked super-people. 

By contrast, Kristatos merely attempts to to steal the ATAC and make some money off the theft.  

Kristatos is also a sadist -- as his act of keel-hauling proves dramatically -- but he’s a more realistic, more nuanced figure than either Stromberg or Drax were.  

In fact, Kristatos is kind of petty, even, sending Bond to kill his rival, Columbo so he doesn’t have to expend the energy himself.

In terms of action, For Your Eyes Only is exhilarating, in part because director Glen often adopts the first-person point-of-view in the chase sequences, particularly in the ski-chase and inside the bob-sled track. 

This P.O.V. angle literally lands us in the action, and though the feelings of speed and acceleration are incredible, so is the feeling of reality.  This is not something “faked” like the outer space adventure of Moonraker, for example. 

Moore’s Bond also seems more world-weary and less fresh-faced in this entry. I know that many fans believe that Moore was too old, at this juncture, to play the role effectively, but I like Moore’s Bond with a little age on his face, in For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy (1983), specifically. 

He’s still an attractive, able-bodied man, but with age comes wisdom, and also the appearance of a more knowing, perhaps more fatigued demeanor. I think Moore’s appearance works well in conjunction with the character’s story in For Your Eyes Only. Bond stopped being “dashing” and “fresh-faced” a long time ago.  He’s seen much mileage since those days.

As I wrote above, For Your Eyes Only revolves largely around revenge.  

The opening scene sees Bond execute his final, fatal revenge upon Blofeld, the man who killed his wife. Bond offs this dastardly opponent with appropriate glee, given what Blofeld cost him.  

But then, after exorcising his own vengeance, Bond counsels Melina not to further pursue her own. She has already killed the man directly responsible for her parents’ death, and Bond doesn’t want to see her make violence and revenge a way of life. 

This advice is intriguing.  Bond wants to spare Melina his own journey, either because he has recognized this impulse for revenge in himself, or because he has beaten that impulse within himself.  The movie doesn’t specify which happens to be the case, but it’s enough that Bond notes the Chinese proverb about seeking revenge, and digging two graves.

Melina, however, doesn’t want to hear Bond’s words. She compares herself explicitly to Electra, the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. When her father was killed by Aegisthus, Elektra plotted revenge with her brother, Orestes, and that revenge consisted of murder.   

Revenge also comes into the picture with Kristatos and Columbo: rivals who hate one another, and will do anything to destroy one another. Every slight, every attack, is countered so that their conflict continues endlessly. This is the very example Bond fears for Melina: a cycle in which she can’t let go of her hatred, or the need for violence. A cycle which kills innocents, like the Countess, Lisl.

Bond’s understanding, finally, about revenge seems to involve the answer he gives Gogol, after destroying the ATAC: “Détente.” 

At some point, enemies -- like the East and West in the Cold War -- must put aside slights, hurts and rivalries, and attempt to move forward.  If that doesn’t happen, the two-sides will be locked forever -- like Kristatos and Columbo -- in an undying rivalry of violence and bloodshed.

Screening For Your Eyes Only again this week, I was struck by how tense and suspenseful the film remains.  I noted this suspense in three key scenes: at the ski tower, were Bond is bullied and pushed into a jump, underwater, in his battle with an enemy in a heavy diving suit, and finally during the ascent to Kristatos’ St. Cyrils mountaintop headquarters.

That final sequence, with Bond scaling a mountain, is nerve-wracking, in particular.  There’s no music accompanying his climb, just the noise of the wind howling all around him.  Similarly, when a bad guy attempts to knock James from his high perch, we hear the jangling sounds of the villain banging the butt of his gun into the metal hooks which keep Bond tethered.  

There’s also the sound, here, of ropes stretching and straining as they struggle to hold Bond’s weight.

Bill Conti’s musical score does not kick in until Bond dispatches the henchman, and gives the order for Melina and Columbo to proceed.  When the score commences, it’s a variation of the famous 007 theme, and you’ll sigh in relief at the comfort (and triumph…) that the familiar tune provides after such sustained, carefully-generated anxiety.

In For Your Eyes Only, the push-button Bond of Moonraker is gone, and we get in his stead a man who feels pain, who remembers his history, and who uses his instincts -- not his toys -- to stay alive.  

The result of all these efforts to re-ground Bond is a great entry in the canon, and the best Roger Moore 007 film of all.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Summer of '81: Escape from New York

In John Carpenter's landmark action film, the year 1988 sees a whopping 400 percent increase in America's crime rates.  A result is that, by 1997, Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison...housing all of America's offenders.  

The city is one giant "dark zone."  The waters around the island are mined.  The bridges out of the city are blocked off, and Lady Liberty has become but a disembarkation point, a processing station for new prison inmate where they are (mercifully?) given the option of immediate termination rather than incarceration. 

This last bit of detail involving the Statue of Liberty  is wonderful visual and contextual symbolism: the beautiful statue that once welcomed immigrants to America's shores now oversees a journey to perpetual exile and punishment.  The American dream, as Carpenter's They Live (1988) suggests, seems truly dead.

Some critics at the time of the film's release called Escape from New York "utterly cynical" and noted that it presented a "corrosive, pessimistic view of humanity," (Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times).  

Others, like Joseph Gelmis noted that Carpenter's visuals were "provocative," and recognized  that the Carpenter film offered "an escape" from "ordinary entertainment into the hothouse  humidity" of viewer "paranoia" (Richard Corliss, Time Magazine).  

Another way to read that last sentence is this: As in the case of all good speculative writers and filmmakers, John Carpenter gazed at some troublesome signs in the world around him and imagined what the future might look like, given certain present-day trends.   All true works of art -- and this goes for horror movies, action movies, literature and theatre -- reflect their historical context to a large degree, and the same axiom is true of Escape from New York

So what exactly were those trends?  What was Carpenter seeing  around him, in the culture, in 1980 and 1981?
A computer diagram of Manhattan Island Prison.

Well, the crime rate in America had steadily been on the rise since the early 1970s, but was at all-time peak in the early 1980s (though it steeply declined starting in 1993).  

The most highly-concentrated areas of crime in America were inside modern cities, largely because of the population density and the pervasive economic disadvantages of many denizens.  

In 1980, America was also suffering an economic recession and locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

At the same time that crime was skyrocketing in 1980, America boasted the highest-documented incarceration rate in the world.  

In other words, we not only had more crimes committed here, we had more people going to prison for them (especially drug crimes, which form a disproportionately large percentage of our inmate population, to this day).  

In 2010, still, we incarcerate more criminals than any nation in the globe.  One in American eighteen men is in jail at this point, or being monitored under house arrest.  So this trend, unlike the crime rate, did not abate after the 1980s.

Studying these trends from the standpoint of 1980, however, it must have been tantalizing to imagine what might occur in the future if the crime rate and prison rate continued to increase at such a blazing rate; if all things remained equal.  Were we destined to be a country of crime and violence, managed by heavily-armed, helmeted and uniformed policemen?

Instead of building prisons -- especially with deficits and economic recession to deal with -- would we pick a pre-existing, geographically isolated area like Manhattan Island -- and convert it into a giant, inescapable jail?  

It's a brawny, imaginative, and scary concept,  and John Carpenter was also reportedly influenced by the 1974 film Death Wish, which he didn't much like, but which nonetheless depicted the modern American city as a "jungle."  This was a vibe the director reportedly sought to emulate in Escape from New York.

He succeeded wildly, and though Escape from New York is not a horror film, it features passages of palpable terror and surprise jolts.  Most of the film occurs in impenetrable night (like Halloween [1978]), and dangerous, barely-human "Crazies" roam Manhattan's streets, bursting out of floor boards and chasing people down darkened alleys.  Courtesy of Carpenter's pulse-pounding soundtrack, the film is perpetually intense, and punctuated by great bursts of violence and rousing action.

If one purpose of film is to transport the audience to a new world, one unimagined and unreal (but nonetheless believable), then Escape from New York succeeds wildly, landing us in a future that might have been, but thankfully wasn't.  It's a great dark, dystopian fantasy.

"Get a New President"

Ronald Reagan + Margaret Thatcher = Donald Pleasence.

Escape from New York tells the story of a decorated veteran and criminal convict, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), as he is transferred to Manhattan Island Penitentiary.  

Before Snake goes in, however, a national crisis occurs.  

Forces of organized labor (now deemed a terrorist organization by the police state....) hijack Air Force One, and fly it over restricted New York airspace while it is en route to the Hartford Summit and the President's meeting with international enemies, the Soviet Union and China.  The plane crashes, but not before the President (Donald Pleasence) lands safely inside the prison in an escape pod.

Unfortunately, forces of New York's tyrannical ruler, the Duke (Isaac Hayes), capture the President and use him to negotiate for the release of the entire prison population.  The President  happens to be carrying a critical cassette tape on the subject of a nuclear fusion breakthrough, one which could end the war, finally, and involves no less than "the survival of the species." Ao he can't simply be left in the City at the mercy of the Duke.  

Snake gets sent into the penitentiary by glider to retrieve the President and the crucial cassette tape.  The survivor has just 24-hours to do so before capsules in his neck (implanted by his captors...) explode and kill him.  Once inside Manhattan, Snake teams up with an old Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) who "knows everyone in this town," a treacherous but brilliant old colleague, Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and his his "squeeze," Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), a devoted bodyguard and beautiful woman.

But getting the President out alive isn't going to be easy.  

"Only Prisoners and the Worlds They Have Made..."

Snake lands in enemy territory.

One of the most perpetually fascinating aspects of Escape from New York involves the Carpenter comparison of the world inside the prison to the world outside, in larger, future America.  

Specifically, America of 1997 -- as envisioned by Escape from New York -- has become a restrictive police state, and the country is locked in a perpetual, seemingly-never ending international war.  

The war, in fact, seems to be an excuse for some draconian law enforcement policies, and the refrain "we're still at war" (spoken by Hauk [Lee Van Cleef]) is used as a kind of blanket explanation, rationalizing away much.   

We get much of this information through visuals, and through brief snatches of dialogue.  The "terrorist" hijacker of Air Force One says this, for example: "Tell this to the workers when they ask where their leader went. We, the soldiers of The National Liberation Front of America, in the name of the workers and all the oppressed of this imperialist country, have struck a fatal blow to the fascist police state. What better revolutionary example than to let their president perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison."

That line suggests much political commentary about the country America has turned into.

But Carpenter artfully sets up a parallel between the film's two rulers, The Duke of New York, and the President of the United States.  Donald Pleasence's character -- whom the actor freely admitted was created as an amalgam of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher -- is strong with stagecraft and public speech, but cowardly when confronted with real personal jeopardy in New York.  Worse, when he is "tested" by Snake following his escape, the consummate politician evidences simply token regret for the fact that people died to save his life and free him from the Manhattan Penitentiary.  

All the Chief Executive can offer are a few hollow words about "the nation" appreciating their sacrifice.  The nation?  What about him, the man and president?  Rescued by people dismissed as criminals and thrown away by society at large?

Snake gives the President a fair chance to review his experiences in NY, and thus revise his law enforcement policies (throwing away whole cities worth of American citizens...) but the President does not rise to the occasion.   He's going to be on TV in a few minutes, after all, and he's really busy.

In Snake's eyes, this behavior ultimately makes the President no better than The Duke.  Both men  use harsh tactics, just on vastly different scales.  The Duke threatens people with a machine gun; the President with a breakthrough in nuclear fusion that could end the world.  

The Duke does not reciprocate the loyalty of his people, and when he sees a chance to escape from prison alone, he takes it.  Similarly, the President evidences no regret for the fact that Maggie, Cabbie and Brain died in the attempt to rescue him.  One man is a criminal on a personal scale (the Duke); the other is a criminal on an international scale.  One man rules a real prison, the other man rules a country, a metaphorical prison, perhaps.

The 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A. would go even further with this notion of comparing America to a prison; with a fundamentalist, religious-right president (from Lynchburg, just like the late Jerry Falwell...) banishing Muslims, atheists, smokers and meat-eaters (!) from Christian America proper to the breakaway island of Los Angeles. 

I Thought You Were Dead: Snake Plissken as Carpenter Anti-Hero

I heard you were dead.

When I wrote my monograph, The Films of John Carpenter, I expounded at great length about the John Carpenter Anti-Hero, and the numerous examples we see throughout the director's film canon.  

These anti-heroes are, in brief: Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., MacReady in The Thing (1982), John Nada in They Live (1988), Trent in In The Mouth of Madness (1994), Jack Crow in Vampires (1998),  and Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars (2001).

What can we say about these men?

Well, the Carpenter Anti-Hero is often a noble outsider and criminal  whose reputation precedes him. We see this explicitly with Snake.  Everywhere he goes, men admire him, know his reputation, and greet him with the comment "I heard you were dead."  He is a legend, then, in his own time.  Before he was a crook, Snake was a decorated war hero.  This is important, he once believed in America enough to serve in her military; but something change.  Something disappointed him and Snake left the system.  Hauk is downright fascinated by Snake and his outsider status, and by film's end, even offers Plissken a job.

Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) in Assault on Precinct 13 is also the subject of intense curiosity to members of the establishment class, including his jailer, Starker (Charles Cyphers): "You're not a psychopath. You're not stupid," he says "why did you kill all those people?" This question allows us to understand that Wilson -- like Snake -- is not simply a run-of-the-mill thug.  Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars is very much the same space: a noble criminal with an uncompromising set of ethics and a legend built up around him by society.  These are men who left society-at-large to make a statement.

Why create a film hero who is also a criminal?  Well, as I wrote in my book, Carpenter is a real maverick, but more than that, strongly anti-authoritarian in his bent.  I  suspect that he views people who are part of the current (corrupt?) system as being compromised and therefore not entirely fit for heroism.  Now, of course, Natasha Henstridge and Austin Stoker play noble police officers in their respective Carpenter features, but they emerge as real heroes largely through their association with the criminals and recognition that Wilson and Williams can be powerful allies fighting a common evil.  

Secondly, who is a "criminal" depends largely on who writes the laws, doesn't it?  This is, similarly, the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.  Who's to say if Snake is a criminal, or actually a protester?

But to put a very fine point on it, Carpenter  requires an "outsider" in films such as They Live and Escape from New Yorkone to pass judgment on the current establishment.  You can't fulfill this role if you are a part of that establishment  You have to be disenfranchised...outside.    

As his point of view as "outsider" suggests, the Carpenter anti-hero is universally a man who sees things differently than those around him, and usually in power.  Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) sees the United States as corrupt and bereft of freedom and humanity in both Escape films.  Likewise, John Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers the alien conspiracy behind America's consumer, yuppie culture, in They Live.  

Importantly, the "vision" of these two  characters is hampered -- or perhaps augmented -- in a fashion that visually distinguishes them from the other dramatis personae in the films. Snake distinctively adorns an eye-patch. John Nada dons a pair of sunglasses so that he can see reality as it is; the very opposite of rose-colored glasses.   In other words, form echoes content in the films of J.C.  These men "see" differently, and their visual accouterments actually reflect the singularity of that "sight." 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, through the Anti-hero's actions, some aspect of "The Establishment" is changed in a typical John Carpenter film.   The Carpenter anti-hero is one who, through often his final act, changes the shape and order of things in his world.  He overturns the corruption.  In Escape from New York, Snake judges the President as a failure, and shreds the cassette tape that could save the world...judging that America -- at least in this iteration -- isn't worthy of survival.

In Escape from L.A., Snake Plissken activates the Sword of Damocles and plunges the world into perpetual darkness, so that America can literally start over, and liberty can be re-born.

In They Live, John Nada destroys the alien satellite dish sending hypnotic signals to all human beings, revealing the world as it truly is; not through the filter of reality the alien echo chamber has created. In The Thing, MacReady destroys the arctic base, and holds the Thing at bay in the icy winter, even though it means his eventual death.  In Vampires, Crow takes down the evil cardinal in the Vatican and the lead vampire simultaneously, destroying an unholy -- but apparently well-established -- conspiracy.

Snake and his anti-hero brethren are agents of change, but in films like Escape from New York, Carpenter suggests such change can only truly come from outside the system.  The agents of change, it should be noted, are almost all Western-styled heroes  (cowboys?) who ride in, almost always alone (though Crow has a team; Williams a gang...) and soon set things straight.

Chock Full of Nuts

And in this corner...Snake Plissken

Another reason that Escape from New York works so well, 40 years later,  is that it gently but humorously tweaks its own premise, that the Big Apple is now a maximum-security prison.  

For instance, The Great White Way is still, apparently putting on musicals...just with smaller budgets.  Snake walks in on Cabbie during a theatrical performance of the uncharacteristically-happy tune "Everyone's Coming to New York." This song pointedly ribs musical tradition and the Great American songbook, but more than that, literally states the truth.  In a country of harsh, draconian laws, where Manhattan is a prison, everyone is coming to New York. Sooner or later.

Later in the film -- during an action scene, no less -- characters passionately argue about street directions, as drivers in standstill New York traffic are wont to do in real life, every day.  In particular, Maggie and Brain argue about taking Broadway at that time of night.  Broadway, it turns out, is lined by armed miscreants and Crazies...

Another fine joke is entirely visual in nature. Snake hides in a coffee shop on Broadway and 43rd street, called Chock Full of Nuts (established in 1921). Well, Chock Full of Nuts sells itself as the "official coffee of the city that never sleeps," and given the presence of Crazies and crooks, the New York of this movie doesn't seem to sleep, either.  

Better yet, the store is overrun by Crazies (coming out of the floor boards) in a matter of moments, so it is, a place, literally, chock full of nuts. The shop's residents live up to the moniker.

Why mention the humorous aspects of the film?  Well, it's harder to view Escape from New York as "corrosive," "utterly cynical" and "pessimistic" once you recognize that it also features this mitigating presence of levity.  In other words, the movie's dark view of humanity (and the System) is leavened, largely, by the wicked in-jokes that run throughout the film's veins. John Carpenter is first and foremost a popular filmmaker.  He may (and often does...) have a lot of substance to say in his films, but his movies are always going to entertain first.

In that sense, finally, Escape from New York must rank as one of the great urban blight pictures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  It doesn't candy coat its dark speculations a whit, but its lead character, Snake, is an admirable anti-hero, and the movie boasts this subversive sense of humor about its very premise.    

These are just a few reasons why Snake Plissken is immortal, and cult movie fans have never made the mistake of believing that he is dead.

30 Years Ago: The Rocketeer (1991)

A strange factoid about superhero movies is that period pieces rarely succeed at the box office. Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze  (1975),  The...