Escape From New York (1981)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 26, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Universal (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1. 95 minutes
The Movie
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Donald Pleasence
Country: USA
A must-see action flick. Simple as that. John Carpenter in his golden era, and Kurt Russell at his best.

In 1988, America's crime rate rises 400%, and Manhattan Island becomes America's biggest High Security prison, with a 50 foot high containment wall built all the way around it. Prisoners are dropped in, never to return to the outside world. Of course, in 1997, when some thoroughly repellent bastards drop the President in the middle of New York City, extracting him is not as easy as you'd like.

Enter: Snake Plissken, all round bad boy, and wise-cracking anti-hero par excellence, as only John Carpenter can provide. He's the only one capable of getting the President out, being vicious and ruthless enough to do so, and he's offered the mission by Police Commissioner Hauk (played by the truly legendary Lee Van Cleef), in return for a full pardon. Plus, being a failed bank robber who's about to be put into the prison himself, he has the added incentive of having two small explosive charges planted in his bloodstream, which can only be removed by x-rays when he returns, with the President. So, with a 22 hour time-frame, Snake, tricked, pissed-off and showing it, goes in.

When Lee Van Cleef gives an order, he really gives an order. Van Cleef, with at least 30 years of film-making under his belt by the time this film was made, much of it in action films – whether his bit part as one of Miller's gang in High Noon, or his more substantial roles in Spaghetti Western classics like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or For a Few Dollars More – adds weight to this film's pretty impressive cast, and a hard edge to the character of Commissioner Hauk.

It's worth noting the pretty formidable cast Carpenter has assembled for Escape From New York – besides Van Cleef's steely, hard-bitten, untrustworthy menace, Carpenter mainstays Kurt Russell (Russell's Clint Eastwood impersonation as Snake is especially noteworthy – apparently the studio wanted Charles Bronson!) and Adrienne Barbeau (when I was a teenager, seeing this for the first time, watching her walk down those stairs – there was a lot of umm… "chest motion", shall we say; very distracting for a young lad) give good performances under his direction as always, character actors Harry Dean Stanton and Ernest Borgnine are always impressive under anyone's direction, Donald Pleasence puts in a good turn as the President (although personally, I wouldn't have voted for him – but the anti-authority vibe has always permeated Carpenter's work, so I guess his characterisation was pretty deliberate: President as buffoon, being tormented and otherwise humiliated, being a coward), and Isaac Hayes is suitably bad-ass as the Duke of New York, although I would have liked to have seen him get a bit more screen time.

Actually, that is a point: time. This film is certainly taut and tense (with the main character working under a pretty limited time frame, that was pretty much a given), but at times, this kind of works against it in terms of characterisation; you don't really care too much about any of the characters, being that the film is a non-stop breathless race for the finish line. Maybe that was the point – keep it all about plot, and pare off anything tangential to it. If that was the case, then mission accomplished. When you watch the deleted opening sequence with Snake's bank heist-gone-wrong, you can kind of see why it was cut – it slows the film down, and when you have that problem in your opening ten minutes, it's straight to the cutting room floor for that footage.

In terms of time as well, it's always amusing to watch a film that's set in the "future", when now it's actually the past. All that stuff that never happened… But in terms of presenting us with a bleak, dystopian future – you can buy it as well as Orwell's 1984, Zamayatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, or Lang's Metropolis, albeit in more of a comic-book fashion: America as ultra-conservative police state. It's ironic that this was filmed just prior to Reagan's presidency, when that ultra-conservative mindset came into play. The world is at war (Snake is presented to us as a decorated war hero, remember) – consider it's an 80s film (just); a contemporary audience would buy that completely, being that the Cold War was still in full swing and about to heat up once Reagan got into the Oval Office – and the President has vital information for a summit meeting of world leaders, hence the tight time limit on Snake's mission.

Filmed in St Louis, Missouri (New York itself was apparently too expensive, and St Louis had just had a fire, which rendered vast blocks of ruined landscape accessible), the look of the film always reminds me of The Warriors, and it's not just because of the gangs and New York setting and so forth – there's a kind of griminess to both films, and a comic book tone – if you can look me in the eye and tell me Isaac Hayes' spin on The Duke, let alone Snake Plissken himself, isn't a comic book character, I'll call you a liar.

Must say, this would have to be a hard movie for the average New Yorker to take in today, given that the main plot relies on having a plane piloted by terrorists crashing into a high-rise-in New York. In a post 9-11 world, that would have to be pretty hard to deal with. Some of the action taking place on top of the World Trade Centre wouldn't help ease that sting, either.
Smokin'. Yet again Carpenter shows his mastery of the widescreen format, and the 2.35:1 presentation looks a million bucks. A fine transfer. Also (and I know I'm preaching to the converted here), Dean Cundey's cinematography is pretty fuckin' impressive.
Also good. The 5.1 remix is about as good as it's going to sound, anyway.
Extra Features
Yer choice from two different commentary tracks, one highly entertaining one with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell (they sound like they're having tremendous fun), one drier one with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. What I found interesting in the commentary track with Carpenter and Russell, is the low, low budget the film was made on, considering how good it looks. Listening to the two of them talk about how they managed to cut corners without looking like they cut corners and achieve top notch production value, is really a must for aspiring film makers. And the amount of different places that substitute for New York: St Louis, Sepulveda Basin in L.A., USC, John Carpenter's garage – no, seriously! Carpenter's fucking garage!

Also included is a recent featurette: Return to Escape From New York (is it just me, or is John Carpenter really starting to closely resemble Skeletor?), the Snake Plissken Chronicles (a montage of shots from the film, basically telling Snake's story of the events of the film), a deleted opening sequence (definitely worth a look for fans), a photo and poster gallery, and the trailer and teaser trailer. Not a bad package for the die-hard fan, and certainly adequate for completists. It'd be hard to ask for more, although surely there must be some old promo material (interviews and such) from 1981 lurking out there, gathering dust on some shelves somewhere?
The Verdict
If you're a Carpenter fan, you'll want to buy this. If you're an action film fan, you'll want to buy this. Matter of fact, just go and buy the fuckin' thing will ya? If you can't get a kick out of Escape From New York you must be retarded.
Movie Score
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