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While Johnny Depp may be a bit too good looking to convince us he’s John Dillinger, Michael Mann’s movie about the notorious criminal’s crime spree and killing remains a solid action drama. Even better, the director stages two dramatic escapes among the many first class firefights. One involves Dillinger breaking into prison to free a buddy. The second involves an FBI ambush at the Little Bohemian lodge outside of Chicago. In the first case, careful planning (almost) wins the day. In the second, it’s a blaze of bullets acting as a barrier to freedom.
The title says it all. Clint Eastwood had a big late ‘70s hit with this adaptation of the J. Campbell Bruce non-fiction tome. In it, he plays a notorious escapee from other prisons sent to ‘The Rock’ for its equally contentious reputation against same. As Clint and his co-conspirators plot and plan, we wonder how they will ever pull it off. The resulting last act, filled with digging, disguises, and a final watery dash to freedom, makes up for an otherwise tepid trip through life in one of the nation’s most controversial correctional institutions.
There is actually two parts to this title. The first offers up the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance), who is kidnapped by radicals. Hijacking Air Force One, the terrorists down the plane inside the maximum security prison known as Manhattan. This requires former war hero turned government headache Snake Pilssken to infiltrate the former Big Apple and bring the leader of the Free World to safety. One is escaping the anarchy inside this future shock Hellhole. The other is trying to escape his past, and those who want to persecute him for it.
The premise is pretty simple: a huge apartment block in Jakarta, Indonesian, is owned by a powerful mobster and he uses the place as a hideout, storehouse, and security system. Most of the residents are his underlings, charged with protecting him at all costs. When a rookie cop and his fellow officers invade, hoping to end his evil rein. The ensuing floor by floor fights sees the police outnumbered, out manned, and eventually, out maneuvered. But our hero wants his man, even if it means threatening his ability to get back out.
For most people, this is the ultimate escape movie. We have a man, unjustly imprisoned, his life destroyed by a corrupt system in a corrupt time, and for the next few decades, he meticulously plots his revenge both against the people in power and against the walls that hold him. Thanks to Frank Darabont’s deliberate scripting and excellent direction, as well as Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman’s fine acting, the final reveal is more emotional than most escapes. In fact, the film elevates Stephen King’s otherwise pulpy novella into something akin to high art.
Since it contains one of the most iconic images in the history of motion pictures involving one on the silver screen’s most charismatic stars, this has to be at the top of the list. When POW Steve McQueen (yes, him again) sends his rickety motorcycle over a barbed wire fence in an attempt to flee the Nazis, it stands as a solid example of ‘60s defiance. The rest of the film isn’t so hopeful. In fact, it’s based on the gritty true story of hardship of prisoners at the hands of German’s horrific Stalag system.
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