Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Escape From The Bronx (1983)

Film actors can come from literally anywhere. Many spend years studying (and understudying) their craft, hoping for that big break. Others seem to just fall into it. For example, Marilyn Monroe started on her fateful path to stardom after being photographed at the munitions plant in which she worked. Johnny Depp accompanied a friend to an audition when director Wes Craven asked him to read for the part of Glen in A Nightmare On Elm Street. Harrison Ford worked as a carpenter building cabinets for George Lucas when he was cast in American Graffiti. All went on to successful careers showcasing their particular talents. Yet for every diamond-in-the-rough happenstance deems worthy of bestowing on the world, there are dozens, if not hundreds (and sometimes it feels like thousands), of onscreen personalities pulled from obscurity simply because they looked good and happened to be in the right place at the right time. If IMDB is to be believed (though it seems very plausible to me), Mark Gregory (aka Marco Di Grigorio) was discovered in a gym in Rome.

The Bronx has become a war zone. "Deinfestation Annihilation Squads" patrol the neighborhoods, evicting residents and blowing buildings up. Meanwhile, Trash (Gregory) rides the wastelands on his motorcycle, running weapons to the underground (literally) resistance, led by Dablone (Antonio Sabato). The president of General Construction Corporation, Mr. Clark (Ennio Girolami, aka Thomas Moore), has plans to level the Bronx and build a nice, clean city of the future on top of its ashes, and he has clandestinely ordered DAS leader, Floyd Wrangler (Henry Silva), to deport and/or exterminate the low class residents. As the Bronx residents become more and more embattled, the resistance hatches a risky scheme in a bid to force the corporation to negotiate.

Enzo G. Castellari's Escape From The Bronx (aka Fuga Dal Bronx) is really nothing more than a sequel to his own pasta-pocalypse film, 1990: Bronx Warriors (aka 1990: I Guerrieri Del Bronx). Its title is strictly a ploy to cash in on John Carpenter's vastly superior Escape From New York (and if you've ever seen the amount of non-Django movies with the word "Django" in the title, you'll be very familiar with this practice). From its first shots, the film embodies a distrust of government and big business. As the silver-suited armies tramp through the streets, shooting and burning everyone they see, there is a loudspeaker reassuring residents that they only want to relocate them to housing in New Mexico, and "there is nothing to fear." The instant those words are uttered, we know they're untrustworthy and up to no good. With this setup, the film alludes (consciously or unconsciously) to the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazi regime, and on that level, the film works, though the reference is a tad heavy-handed, I think.

Along those lines, the film is also a play on the battle against homogeneity. The Annihilation Squads dress exactly alike (or as alike as a shoestring budget will allow). We cannot see their faces clearly behind the visors of their helmets. They are the same, interchangeable. The only one who dresses any different is Wrangler, but that's only to distinguish him as the leader (though Silva's cheekbones alone could do that). The Bronx denizens are more individualistic. Though they generally dress in tatters, we can see their faces. The various gangs have distinctive styles of dress (zoot suiters, cabaret tap dancers, pirates, and so on), but each character has a slight variation of their own. The city Clark and company want to erect is full of clean structural lines with no individualism allowed, and it is planned to be built right on top of the Bronx, in effect stamping out any distinctiveness with the sheer weight of sameness. The future will be bright, shiny, and dull.

Trash fits into the antihero archetype snugly. He has no gang anymore, and his only interest in the resistance is in how he will profit from it. When Dablone says he should move underground with them, Trash basically says they're all idiots, and they're not any safer underground than above. He doesn't want responsibility, and the only time he accepts it is when it is thrust upon him. When the film starts, we get a Robin Hood feel about Trash. The government/corporation knows him by name and even seems to be looking for him specifically. His parents have a full-sized poster of him in their home. He brings necessities to the resistance. Problem is, rather than robbing from the rich to give to the poor, Trash robs from the rich to sell to the poor. It isn't until the struggle is made personal, that he takes a proactive hand. As Edmund Burke said, "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." Trash cannot stand apart from his fellow men. The only way they can triumph (in fact, survive) is united.

Castellari has been around the block a few times, and he knows what he's doing with a camera, and he certainly realizes this is an action film above all else (the science fiction aspects are fairly tangential). There are scenes of immolations, shootings, explosions, blunt force traumas, and mayhem of all types. The problem is (and it always pains me to complain about things like this) there is too much of a good thing here. The carnage is wall-to-wall, but it's so pervasive (and scattershot), it loses its impact. Add to that, the main plot/plan of the characters takes so long to get to, it feels arbitrary. It literally feels like there was a two-sentence synopsis of the movie, and Castellari just made everything else up. 

It's been argued (and I think the best James Bond films are sterling examples of this) that the better the villain's plan is, the better the action movie is. Unfortunately, the villain's plan in Escape From The Bronx never goes past level one. The whole movie proceeds not in peaks and valleys but in a straight line. Consequently, there's no cathartic payoff at the climax. Finally, the pell-mell narrative structure leaves an unfocused, shrug-inducing feel in the viewer. It's worth a view and could even be useful as something to keep on in the background of a party, but on its own, this one just left me kind of cold.

MVT: Henry Silva owns every scene he is in (no shock there). With no meat on the bones of this check-cashing gig, he still winds up with plenty of gristle between his teeth.

Make Or Break: Trash owns a revolver that is even more powerful than Harry Callahan's .44 Magnum, apparently. You'll know the scene when you see it. 

Score: 5.75/10


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