Escape from The Bronx
“In the near future.” More times than not, it’s a euphemistic way for a science fiction film to say, “We were too broke to afford interesting sets.” Setting a film in “the near future” is a great way to get around a variety of stumbling blocks, not the least of which is a low budget. The near future allows you, as I said, to pretty much make up all sorts of new technology, situations, and laws while not having to fork over any money to build futuristic sets. It allows you to mold modern society to your whims without having to recreate it as something new. The alternate to this solution is to have a guy from the future travel back in time to the 20th century to save us or kill some other time traveling villain or some such nonsense. Once again, unless you are James Cameron, this allows you to throw some scifi stuff the way of the audience while not having to think too much about the look of the film.
My favorite solution to making a sci-fi film with a low budget came in one of those Full Moon productions about guys in giant robots hitting each other. I can’t remember which one, and I’m not currently committed to my craft enough to expend the thirty seconds it would take me to go to the Internet Movie Database and look it up. Anyway, the vast majority of the movie is set in “a futuristic theme park made to look exactly like a 20th century town,” which means they can have their scifi cake while filming the entire thing at an abandoned strip mall.
Setting your film in “the near future” allows you to do something else as well. It allows you to “predict the future” with surprising accuracy, something that always seems to impress people. Frankly, if your movie made in 1980 predicts with any degree of accuracy events that will occur in the far-flung year of 1986, I’m not entirely prepared to grovel at your feet and call you the Amazing Creskin. Maybe the Amazing Criswell. What’s far more interesting is when a film maker sets their film a few years in the future and yet is so wildly off-base in their interpretation of current events that their film just makes them look like a bunch of buffoons. Strange Days and pretty much any movie that based itself on the virtual reality revolution that was going to sweep the 1990s into an era of digital masturbation fall into this category. Sure, we all started masturbating while using computers, but it was only because we were looking at porn pictures, not because we had donned a full-body tactile stimulator suit and downloaded a Catherine Zeta-Jones avatar into our VR machine.
The vast bulk of 1980s post-apocalyptic scifi actioners that flooded the market during the waning yet intense final days of the Cold War also fall into this category. The precedent for these films was set by the spectacular Mad Max, a near-future film that was smart enough to stay just grounded enough in current reality to remain completely believable. While this movie may have set the stage, it was the sequel, Road Warrior that everyone wanted to rip off. Mad Max was cool and all, but its story of society teetering on the edge of collapse wasn’t as financially compelling as Road Warrior‘s vision of a future gone insane and full of wild bikers and people in big chicken wire shoulder pads. Of course, the big difference between Road Warrior and the endless parade of imitators is that Road Warrior was a great movie, while most of the others were…less good.
When Italian exploitation director Enzo G. Castellari decided to try his hand at post-apocalyptic films, he tried a couple different recipes. He churned out the requisite “wandering around the wasteland” Road Warrior rip-off in the form of New Barbarians, a fairly average but ultimately enjoyable film. It pales however, to the bizarre blend of Escape from New York and Warriors that was 1990 Bronx Warriors, a wild tale of near-future gangs in the no-man’s-land of The Bronx. Alternately accurate and ridiculous, the movie featured gangs of pimps, Broadway tap dancers, roller skaters, and of course, bikers lead by the young and charismatic Trash.
When a movie is as big, as powerful, as awe-inspiring as 1990 Bronx Warriors, the people want, nay, demand a sequel. Or maybe the don’t. It doesn’t really matter, because want it or not, they made a follow-up to that “in the not too distant future” reworking of Walter Hill’s classic street gang epic The Warriors. Since I actually quite enjoyed 1990 Bronx Warriors, I really have no complaints about a second film in the ongoing saga of heavy metal biker hero Trash and his never-ending struggle against the forces of greedy Manhattan fat cats.
Set a few years after 1990 Bronx Warriors, this movie continues the tradition of being dead on in some of its not-too-difficult predictions, while being laughably off-base in others. As in the first film, the most accurate prediction is that, unlike what we saw in Escape from New York, Manhattan does not become a criminal wasteland but instead becomes so fabulously expensive that only the very rich can afford to live there while the poor and freakish are pushed further and further into the margins of the city map. By Escape from the Bronx, the trendy and the rich have outgrown the confines of Manhattan and are looking to take over the other burroughs as well. Anyone currently living in New York can attest to the accuracy of this as what were once affordable neighborhoods in Brooklyn other burroughs are suddenly tripling their rents and pushing the poor, and even just the middle class, further and further away from the city.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at things, that’s about where this film’s accuracy in predicting the events of distant 1996 come to an abrupt halt. You should be thankful, because an action film about the rise and fall of spoiled Ivy League millionaire twenty-somethings building Silicon Alley with mom and dad’s money, then proving they didn’t know what the hell they were doing, thus taking the whole greed-crazed American economy down with them, might be good drama but hardly makes for scintillating action cinema. And let’s face it, the world needs another expose of the vapidness and superficiality of cokehead yuppies like it needs another Hitler. Do you want to watch a movie about some rich kid drinking too much and screwing the marketing girl, or do you want to watch a movie where bikers and tap dancers throw grenades at Henry Silva and his army of cops in silver jumpsuits? Speaking of which, given that they are marching very slowly down the middle of the street, these cops might have been better off in body armor, flak vests, things like that. But I guess that doesn’t look as cool as foil jumpsuits.
After the gangs who kept the order were destroyed in the first film, The Bronx has become even worse than it was before, and a Manhattan company has big plans to demolish every single building and turn it into a rich man’s paradise. The movie opens with legions of the aforementioned cops parading through the crumbling wasteland of The Bronx, droning on and on about how everyone is ordered to leave The Bronx and report for relocation to clean, modern housing somewhere in New Mexico. Why they want to ship a bunch of New Yorkers, and a bunch of New Yorkers from The Bronx, to New Mexico is beyond me. I guess there’s room for everyone there, but its not like there is a striking resemblance between New Mexico and The Bronx. And anyway, everyone knows old New Yorkers get shipped to Boca Raton.
Needless to say, a lot of people aren’t all that excited about being forcibly located to New Mexico. They might be persuaded to leave a crime-ridden hellhole like The Bronx if they got to go somewhere besides a desolate hellholle out in the middle of nowhere. Not to insult New Mexico, or The Bronx for that matter. In order to deal with the people who refuse to leave of their own free will, the corporation has employed “disinfestation” squads, paramilitary units in silver jumpsuits and motorcycle helmets who walk around The Bronx frying everyone with flame throwers. As I mentioned in the review of the previous film, I can think of about a hundred weapons that would be more effective in close-quarter urban combat than a flame thrower, but I guess none of them make for as dramatic a visual. Oh well, at least some of the cops carry machine guns too.
It seems a bit odd, even if the world has gone to hell in a hand basket, that some real estate company would be allowed to stomp about The Bronx incinerating and shooting people left and right, including many unarmed and innocent people. Even within the context of the film, it is established that while The Bronx may be a modern day Casbah without that infamous region’s decorating sense, the rest of the country is still more or less law-abiding. Sending in legions of shock troops who kill mass number of people at random seems to be the sort of thing people tend to notice.
Even if we discount that and agree that, for the purposes of this film, the government is willing to turn a blind eye to the mass extermination of countless men, women, and children, we still have to deal with the fact that, contrary to promises made by the corporation, the people aren’t being relocated at all. They are being exterminated. Now this is the sort of thing that people really notice. A street war with armed thugs and homeless guys is one thing, but murdering what has to be tens of thousands of people with no repercussions is hard to swallow, even within the relatively goofball world of post-apocalyptic urban horror stories. Even the creators of this film must have realized this, because they at least pay some lip service to “dealing with the U.N. Human Rights Committee.” But come on! How can this company keep the mass slaughter of thousands upon thousands of people a secret? All any reporter had to do was go down to New Mexico and see that there weren’t any idyllic relocation homesteads there, and presto! The story is broken. Unfortunately, the journalists in the movie are too damn lazy to make a single phone call to check this claim, and instead get all their news directly from the corporate spokesman. This is sort of like how the government can investigate corruption within the government and conclude that it’s not too bad.
Actually, when you look at what a bunch of lazy asses the modern crop of journalists are, these suck-ups who report press releases and marketing copy as if it is cold, hard fact rather than doing any actual work or research, I have to conclude that, albeit unintentional no doubt, Escape From the Bronx pretty much nailed modern journalism right on the head of the nail.
Also among those refusing to vacate The Bronx are Trash’s parents. It’s sort of a weird twist to imagine Trash having parents, even weirder to imagine him still living with them, though not entirely unrealistic. I just have to get used to thinking about Trash leading a street gang revolution with Fred Williamson, then going home at the end of the day to tack posters up to his wall and have his mom cook him up a Hot Pocket. Since Trash has become something of a street legend after leading the spectacular but unsuccessful street gang revolt against the cops in the first film, the disinfestation squad lead of course by my main man Henry Silva figure they can murder his parents, and that oughta smoke the little fella out. While Trash’s dad busts some skulls with a baseball bat, Trash himself is busy collecting ammo to sell to the underground resistance, so named because they all live underground and don’t put up much resistance. However, they are lead by a positively Ricardo Montalbon-esque Antonia Sabata, Sr., complete with bandanna, cool accent, and keen pirate earring. A shame, then, that he would go through all that trouble to create a cool swashbuckling rebel persona for himself then get saddled with the name Toblerone. That may mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, but to me it just means expensive but delicious chocolate bars.
Toblerone’s merry band of freedom fighters is comprised primarily of the remnants of the defeated gangs, now united by a single cause. Viewers of the previous film will recognize members of the Zombies, Fred Williamson’s silky pimp gang, and weirdly enough the leader of the tap dancing show tune gang. All in all, it’s a fairly cool thread of continuity in a type of film that usually garners several sequels that have nothing at all to do with one another. Toblerone urges Trash to join their cause, which seems to be the cause of hanging out underground and drinking coffee, but Trash says he’s more interested in fighting in the streets and continuing the struggle than hiding out like a rat. When Trash returns home, he finds his parents have been the victims of a grisly flame thrower attack, which annoys him to no end. I should mention that when Trash leaves and comes home, he rides his motorcycle up and down the stairs. Given the narrow and winding nature of the staircase, it might make more sense to just park the motorcycle and walk up, but whatever. Who am I to tell a heavy metal biker and freedom fighter Trash how to conduct himself in his own apartment building?
While Trash vents his anger by leading a bunch of homeless guys in various guerrilla attacks against Henry Silva’s men, a nosy reporter with a shrill voice and atrocious make-up sneaks into The Bronx with her photographer to get first-hand proof of the atrocities being committed there. Needless to say, she gets caught in the crossfire and ends up tagging along with Trash to see Toblerone. While Trash urges the underground resistance to quit collecting weapons and start using them, the reporter has a different approach: kidnap the president of the corporation responsible for the slaughter and use that as leverage for focusing attention on the horrors being perpetrated upon the rag-clad inhabitants of The Bronx. In order to pull off their little scheme, they enlist the aid of former bank robber extraordinare Strike and his bomb-making little kid. The quartet make their way through the sewers and abandoned subway tunnels into Manhattan, emerging just in time for a big shoot-out in a riverside park. In the ensuing violence, they manage to nab the president but lose the reporter. Trust me, you won’t miss her. She delivered her lines with the grating style of Fran Drescher minus the beauty.
Upon hearing about the kidnapping, Silva is delighted. Now he finally has ammunition he can use to turn public opinion in his favor, allowing him to murder even more people. I’m not exactly sure I follow his line of thinking, as kidnapping the man who has slaughtered countless thousands hardly seems like a heinous act. Luckily for Silva, the vice president of the company is also overjoyed, and he manufactures a story about the kidnappers expressing a total lack of interest in politics. They only want money, and lots of it. While better thought out, this still seems like a flimsy excuse to invade The Bronx and kill everyone in sight, but then since that’s what they were doing to begin with, I’m not sure what the problem ever was. The vice president also has another job he wants Silva to carry out: making sure the president is murdered by the rebels in The Bronx, even if that means Silva has to kill the guy himself. After being promised freedom to kill even more people, Silva enthusiastically agrees. Before too long, war breaks out between his men and Trash’s and Toblerone’s band of flamboyantly dressed warriors over ownership of a bunch of crumbling buildings and trash heaps.
As you may very well have guessed, this is a pretty goofy movie. It’s also quite entertaining. There is a ton of action, most of it well-choreographed. Like Peckinpah and Walter Hill, Enzo Castellari loves to use slow-motion, so you get lots of slow-mo shots of guys getting shot, bashed in the head, fried with flamethrowers, or just punching people. I think this movie is more violent than the first one as well as being more action-packed. As far as the acting goes, it’s better than you might think. While the reporter woman is awful, the rest of the cast is actually pretty solid. Antonio Sabato brings a dashing sense of cool to what would have been a goofball of a character handled by a less manly gent, and of course Henry Silva is a dependable workhorse who brings his usual malicious charm to his character. You can always count on Henry to deliver a slightly over-the-top, always entertaining performance. Strike is played by Giancarlo Prete, who also played the fairly unheroic hero, Scorpio, from another Castellari-helmed post-apocalypse movie, New Barbarians. He’s much better here as the grisled thief turned freedom fighter. His son in the movie is played by his real-life son, and since the kid’s primary function is to hang around in the background and blow things up, he’s neither intrusive nor annoying, which is all you can ask of any child in a movie, or life in general for that matter. Mark Gregory returning as Trash is also charismatic in his expressionless sort of way, though he’s not given much more to do than kick ass and look like a member of Saxon. That’s fine.
When it comes to predicting the future, of course, we can all look back from our vantage point here in glorious 2001, aka the future, and have a good laugh at the expense of the vision of those who came before us and tried to guess what things would be like, or at least what would make a fast buck at the time. Given the state of New York City in the early 1980s, coming out of one the most violent and terrible phases in its history, conceiving of parts of it as a vast wasteland run by criminals was easy, and that’s what John carpenter served to us in Escape from New York. However, Castellari’s concept of the city as a giant playground for the rich, where big corporations call all the shots and local politicians are little more than figureheads, was slightly ahead of its time and a lot more accurate.
The plot also has more work put into it than your standard “urban hell of the future” movie. Sure, there are holes large enough to drive entire biker gangs through, or even gangs dressed like the cast of Cabaret, but all in all, it works well enough. It was fun to see the corporation turn the kidnapping around to use to their benefit. I also think the movie has a great ending. The first movie ended, of course, with all our favorites getting their asses kicked by the cops. This time around, the gangs manage to get the better of the cops, at least for a while, and Trash of course gets the better of Silva’s brutal character. The final shot is of Strike emerging victoriously from the rubble to meet with Trash, who is surveying the flaming wreckage from his latest handiwork. Strike smiles and nods to Trash, who returns the gesture with a world-weary shake of his head as if he knows the fighting has all been for nothing. They’ve gained nothing but a hellhole, and it’s more than likely even more cops will show up soon to put an end to the uprising. It’s the sort of gloriously downbeat ending you don’t see too much of in these happy times. So this look at the future is an interesting look at the past and how we all thought society was going to fall apart and we would become an endless stream of victims for big business. It’s too bad that the real world doesn’t have men like Toblerone to laugh in our faces and blow shit up.
Release Year: 1984 | Country: Italy | Starring: Mark Gregory, Henry Silva, Valeria D’Obici, Giancarlo Prete, Paolo Malco, Ennio Girolami, Antonio Sabato, Andrea Coppola, Massimo Vanni, Moana Pozzi, Romano Puppo, Alessandro Prete, Eva Czemerys | Screenplay: Tito Carpi, Enzo Castellari | Director: Enzo Castellari | Cinematography: Blasco Giurato | Music: Francesco De Masi | Producer: Fabrizio De Angelis | Original Title: Fuga del Bronx | Availability: DVD (Amazon)