The Octagon (1980, directed by Eric Karson)


A ninja named Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita) is running a training camp where he shows mercenaries and terrorists how they can use martial arts to assassinate their enemies and disrupt the political system.  Someone has to stop him.

This looks like a job for CHUCK NORRIS!

In this one, Chuck plays Scott James, a retired karate champion who, though a massive series of apparently unrelated coincidences, is drawn into the fight against Seikura’s terrorists.  (Speaking of coincidences, Seikura just happens to be Scott’s half-brother.)  One of the fun things about The Octagon is that there’s no real rhyme-or-reason as to how Scott gets involved.  He just keeps running into people who want him to fight terrorists.  His former mentor (played by Lee Van Cleef) tries to recruit him.  Immediately after turning him down, Scott just happens to run into a woman (Karen Carlson) who is having car trouble and the woman tries to recruit him.  Scott’s old friend, A.J. (Art Hindle) tries to recruit him.  Even a dancer (Kim Lankford) who goes out on a date with Scott is more interested in talking about the terrorists than anything else.  Even when the terrorists decide to go after Scott, it’s mostly just because he keeps talking to their enemies.

Scott does eventually get involved.  He goes undercover, which means that he gives everyone a fake last name while asking them if they know where he can sign up for the terrorist training camp.  (But he doesn’t shave his mustache or anything else so he’s still obviously Chuck Norris.)  Eventually, Aura (Carol Bagdasarian) defects from the terrorists over to Scott’s side and the two of them launch an assault on the terrorist camp.  While this is all going on, Scott has doubts about whether or not he can really defeat his half-brother and we hear them in voice over.  It’s an interesting attempt to show what’s going on in an action hero’s head but, because Chuck was such an inexpressive actor early in his career, the contrast between his worries and his stone face creates a strange effect.

It doesn’t matter, though, that Chuck wasn’t an expressive actor or that the film’s plot is needlessly convoluted.  The fight scenes are frequent and they all rock and that’s what really matters.  Chuck throws a lot of punches and kicks in this film and, as opposed to some of his other early films, the director of The Octagon made sure that we could see every single one of them.  Whether he’s fighting in a small hotel room and fighting off a dozen enemies in the terrorist camp, Chuck’s exciting to watch.  Also exciting to watch is Carol Bagdasarian, who makes her role more than the typical action movie love interest.  At times, she seems like she might even be a deadlier opponent than Chuck himself!

Finally, Lee Van Cleef!  In this one, he drives a truck with a “Have You Hugged Your Gun Today?” bumper sticker.  No film featuring Lee Van Cleef can be that bad.  In fact, most, like The Octagon, are pretty damn entertaining.

Escape From New York (dir. by John Carpenter)


 

escape-from-new-york-movie-poster-1981-1020189511Before you start, note that Escape From New York was recently showcased in Jeff’s 4 Shots from 4 Films post to celebrate Kurt Russell’s birthday. For another take on the film, check out Jeff’s review. Please check that out, and then double back here, if you want. 

When I was little, my Aunt would sometimes take my older brother and I with her into Manhattan. In a little movie theatre near 82nd Street, she’d get us a set of tickets for a film, help us get seated with snacks and then either stay for the movie or leave to perform housekeeping duties for someone nearby if she had work and we weren’t allowed to hang out on site. John Carpenter’s Escape From New York wasn’t a film she stayed for (she loved Raiders of the Lost Ark), but it was okay. I was introduced to Snake Plissken, who ended up being cooler than Han Solo to my six year old eyes. Instead of being the hero, here was a criminal being asked to a mission. It showed me that even the bad guys could be heroes, now and then (or better yet, not every hero is cookie cutter clean). The film became an instant favorite for me. As I also do with Jaws and The Fog, I try not to let a year go by without watching Escape From New York at least once. It was my first Carpenter film.

The cultural impact of Escape From New York is pretty grand, in my opinion. It had a major influence on Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear video games and also spawned a few comics with Plissken, complete with Jack Burton crossovers with Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.

Carpenter brought in most of the same crew he worked with in his previous movies. The film was the third collaboration between Carpenter and Debra Hill, who previously worked with him in 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s The Fog. Though Hill didn’t write this one, she was still the producer, along with Larry Franco. There’s also a bit of speculation on whether Hill performed the opening vocals describing New York or Jamie Lee Curtis handled that. Cinematographer Dean Cundey (who worked on most of Carpenter’s early films) returned to help give the movie it’s gritty look, which is helpful considering how much of it takes place either at night or in darkened rooms. Another interesting part of the production is James Cameron, who was the Director of Photography when it came to the effects and matte work. One of the best effects shots in the film has Plissken gliding over Manhattan, which was designed by Effects member John C. Wash. The shot on his plane’s dashboard of the city was made from miniature mock up with reflective tape that made it appear as if it were digital, which was pretty cool given that they weren’t on an Industrial Light and Magic budget. There’s a fantastic article on We Are The Mutants and on the Escape From New York/LA Fan Page that focus on Wash’s technical contributions to the film.

For Carpenter’s career, Escape From New York marked the start of a great working relationship with Alan Howarth. Howarth, who also worked on the sound in the film, assisted Carpenter with the soundtrack. I’ve always felt this brought a new level to Carpenter’s music overall. You can easily hear the difference when Howarth was involved. Where Carpenter excelled at general synth sound, Howarth’s touch added some bass and depth. Together, they’d work on Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Prince of Darkness and They Live together. On his own, Howarth was also responsible for both Halloween 2, 4 and 5.

For the writing, Carpenter worked with Nick Castle, who played Michael Myers for him in the original Halloween. Escape From New York’s story is simple. In 1988, the crime rate for the United States rises 400 percent. As a result, someone had the notion to turn Manhattan into a prison for an entire country, setting up walls around the borough and mines in the waterways. When Airforce One crashes in the borough nearly a decade later, the recently arrested war hero / fugitive Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given a mission. Go in, rescue the President and/or the tape he’s carrying in 22 hours, and Plissken receives a pardon for all his crimes. To ensure that he follows through, he’s injected with nano-explosives that will kill him when the deadline hits. What seems like a simple mission becomes a little complicated when Snake discovers the President was captured by The Duke of New York, played by Issac Hayes (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). Given that I’ve commuted to Manhattan more times than I can count, the film holds a special place in my heart.  The concept of the entire borough being a prison was mind blowing as a kid. The concept still holds up for me as an adult.

For a film about New York, there were only two days of filming actually spent on location there, according to Carpenter’s commentary. Most of that was used for the opening shot at the Statue of Liberty. The bulk of the film was made in Los Angeles, Atlanta and St. Louis. At the time, there was a major fire in St. Louis. The damage made for a great backdrop for both the crash site and the city at night. The film does take some liberties with locations, though. For example, as far as I know, we don’t have a 69th Street Bridge in Manhattan, but as a kid, it didn’t matter much. From an action standpoint, it might not feel as intense as other films. Even when compared to other films in 1981 – like Raiders of the Lost Ark (released a month earlier) – Escape From New York doesn’t have a whole lot, though I still enjoy what it does provide.

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Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has 22 hours to save the President in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.

Casting seemed to come easy for the film. Hill, Castle and Carpenter reached out to some friends.  Kurt Russell and Carpenter worked together on Elvis, that was easy enough. Russell’s work with Carpenter would continue on in The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.  From Halloween, Donald Pleasance was brought on to play the President, along with Charles Cyphers and Nancy Stephens as one pissed off flight attendant. From The Fog, we have Tom Atkins as Nick and Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, who happened to be married to Carpenter at the time. According to Carpenter on the film’s commentary track, the sequence for Maggie’s exit needed to be reshot and extended. The scene with her body on the ground was filmed in Carpenter’s garage and added to the film.

Ernest Borgnine’s (The Poseidon Adventure) Cabbie was a favorite character of mine. Like most cabbies, he knew the city well. He even prepared for some of its challenges with molotov cocktails. Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Christine) played Brain, the smartest individual in the room and the supplier for gas for the Duke. If you look close, you’ll also catch Assault on Precinct 13’s Frank Doubleday as Romero, which his crazy looking teeth. To round it all out, Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly) plays Hauk, who puts Snake on his mission. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Carpenter film without a George ‘Buck’ Flower cameo. Buck was kind of Carpenter’s lucky charm in the way Dick Miller was for Joe Dante’s films. Good Ol’ Buck plays an inmate who sings Hail to the Chief.

Overall, Escape From New York is a classic Carpenter film that’s worth the watch. Whether you do so while wearing an eyepatch or not, that’s on you. We all have our preferences.

 

Escape From New York (1981, directed by John Carpenter)


What’s your favorite John Carpenter film?

Halloween is an obvious choice.  It’s probably the film that John Carpenter is best-known for.  The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13 are two other popular choices.  Libertarians and anarchists have embraced They Live as a sacred text.  In The Mouth of Madness is one of the few films to capture the feel of a classic H.P. Lovecraft story.  Christine is one of the best of the Stephen King adaptations.  My techphobic father recently purchased a Blu-ray player just so he could watch Big Trouble In Little China whenever he felt like it.

For me, though, my favorite will always be Escape From New York.

Everything about this movie, from the premise to the execution to the darkly funny ending, is pure brilliance.  For those who have been living off the grid for the last 40 years, Escape From New York takes place in what was, at the time of the film’s initial release, the near future.  Due to a 400% increase in crime, Manhattan has been turned into a floating prison.  A wall has been built around the island.  The bridges are covered in mines.  All of the residents are prisoners who have been sentenced to a life term and the Chock Full O’Nuts is now literally full of nuts.

There’s a new resident of New York City.  He’s the President (Donald Pleasence!) and he was supposed to soon deliver a classified cassette tape to the Soviets.  Instead, with the world on the verge of war, Air Force One has crashed in Manhattan and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes!!) is holding him hostage.  Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef!!!) recruits notorious criminal Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell!!!!) to sneak into the prison and retrieve the cassette and save the President, by any means necessary.  If Snake succeeds, he’ll get a pardon.  If Snake fails, he’ll die due to the microexplosives that have been injected into his system.

How unbelievably cool is Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin?  Before fanfic was even known by that name, people were writing stories about Snake Plisskin’s past and how he lost his eye.  Delivering his lines in a Clint Eastwood-style rasp, Kurt Russell gives one of the best action hero performances of all time.  (Snake was the role that transformed Russell from being a clean-cut former Disney child star to being a cult film icon.)  Everything that Snake says is quotable and, even with tiny explosives circulating through his blood, Snake never loses his cool.  Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like Snake cares whether he lives or dies and that’s what makes Snake such a strong hero.  He’s wiling to take the risks that no one else would.  If he saves the President and the world, cool.  If he doesn’t, neither was probably worth saving anyways.  At the end of the film, Snake reveals that there are things that he does care about.  If you don’t appreciate the people who sacrificed their lives for you, don’t expect Snake to do you any favors.

Snake gets some help from a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces, all of whom have their own reasons for trying to save the President from the Duke.  Harry Dean Stanton is Brain while Adrienne Barbeau is Maggie.  Brain is the smartest man in Manhattan and Maggie’s good with a gun and it’s too bad that we never got a prequel about how they met.  My favorite of Escape from New York‘s supporting cast is Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, who is the perfect New York taxi driver and whose taste in music plays off in an unexpectedly satisfying way.

Escape From New York is John Carpenter at his best, an exciting race against time full of memorable characters and thrilling action.  Whenever I go to New York and I cross over a bridge into Manhattan, I think about Snake, Cabbie, and the gang driving through a minefield.  Everyone who meets Snake says “I thought you were dead,” but we know better.  Snake Plisskin will never die and neither will my love for Escape From New York.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Happy Birthday Lee Van Cleef!


Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today is the 95th birthday of the great, late Lee Van Cleef!  Van Cleef got his start playing western outlaws in Hollywood westerns like High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  In the 1960s, Van Cleef did what many American actors of the time.  He went overseas to find better roles and bigger paychecks.  A series of roles in Spaghetti westerns made Van Cleeef one of the biggest stars in Europe and it also made him a timeless film icon.

In honor of the career and legacy of Lee Van Cleef, here are 4 shots from 4 films.

 4 Shots From 4 Lee Van Cleef Films

High Noon (1952, directed by Fred Zinnemann)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, directed by John Ford)

For A Few Dollars More (1965, directed by Sergio Leone)

Sabata (1969, directed by Gianfranco Parolini)

 

Happy Noir Year!: THE BIG COMBO (United Artists 1955)


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(ATTENTION: There’s a surprise waiting for you at the end of this post, so read on…)

Joseph H. Lewis started his directing career with low-budget Westerns starring singing cowboy Bob Baker and East Side Kids programmers, and ended it back on the range doing epsiodes of THE RIFLEMAN, GUNSMOKE, and THE BIG VALLEY. In between, he created some of the finest films noir the genre has to offer: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS , SO DARK THE NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and especially GUN CRAZY . His last big screen noir outing is the culmination of his work in the genre, 1955’s THE BIG COMBO.

The plot is fairly simple: Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is out to crack gangster Mr. Brown’s “combination”, which controls crime in the city. But Philip Yordan’s screenplay takes that plot and adds exciting twists and turns, indelible characters, and a level of violence audiences weren’t…

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Weird Western Tale: Lee Van Cleef in SABATA (United Artists 1970)


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Let’s face it, Lee Van Cleef was one cool hombre, and he’s at his coolest in SABATA, the first film of a trilogy written and directed by Gianfranco Parolini (aka Frank Kramer). The beady-eyed Van Cleef is obviously enjoying himself as Sabata, a trickster with a sinister chuckle and an array of tricked-out weapons who always manages to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

The movie begins traditionally enough, as $100,000 in Army payroll is deposited for safe keeping in the town of Daughtrey’s bank. A daring robbery finds the guards murdered and the safe heisted. It’s all a plot by banker Ferguson, Judge O’Hara, and ex-Confederate Colonel Stengel to buy up land needed for the railroad to come through. What they didn’t count on is the presence of the mysterious Sabata, who stops the bandits with his extra-long range Winchester, carting their carcasses back to town with…

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Lonesome Cowboy: Randolph Scott in RIDE LONESOME (United Artists 1959)


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Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher  teamed again for RIDE LONESOME, their sixth of seven Westerns and fourth with writer Burt Kennedy. Scott’s a hard case bounty hunter bringing in a killer, joined in his trek by an old “acquaintance” with an agenda of his own. Everyone’s playing things close to the vest here, and the stark naked desert of Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills, with its vast emptiness, plays as big a part as the fine acting ensemble.

Ben Brigade (Scott) has captured the murderous Billy John and intends to bring him to justice in Santa Cruz. Coming to a waystation, he finds Sam Boone and his lanky young companion Whit, known outlaws who’ve heard the territorial governor is granting amnesty to whoever brings in Billy. Also at the station is Mrs. Crane, whose husband has been murdered by marauding Mescaleros. Sam’s interested in forming a partnership and taking Billy…

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