Escape from New York (1981) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, brief nudity, and some language
Running Time: 99 min.

Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasance, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins
Cameo: John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis (voice)
Director: John Carpenter

Screenplay: John Carpenter, Nick Castle
Review published September 9, 2013

Escape from New York is set in a future 1997, during a time when, after the crime rate has skyrocketed out of control, the island of Manhattan has been turned into an ultra-maximum security prison where the worst of the worst violent criminals are put to live in a state of walled-in anarchy. A potential global crisis emerges when Air Force One is hijacked, forcing the President's (Pleasance, Halloween) escape pod to crash land on the island, where he is immediately taken and held hostage by the criminals there, led by the vicious warlord, The Duke (Hayes, Robin Hood: Men in Tights). As they will kill the President if any cop sets foot on the premises, the government recruits eye patch-wearing Snake Plissken (Russell, Tombstone), a former military hero who has been recently sentenced to the island, in exchange for not only his freedom, but, due to a bomb implanted inside him set to detonate in mere hours, his life.  Plissken has less than 24 hours to get the President out alive so that he can get some critical information delivered in time for an important political conference that might save the planet from a dark destiny.

John Carpenter (The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13) co-writes and directs (and composes the music for) this cult action classic, one of his best-known and best-loved films. It's a large-scale film shot for a relatively small budget ($6 million), leaving Carpenter with having to make do with whatever resources were at his disposal to bring his futuristic vision to life. Carpenter, working with screenwriter Nick Castle (Hook, The Cowboy Way), keeps the tone ominous and the environs stylishly dystopian, but the keeps the repartee flowing with a modicum of wit, maintaining the film's entertainment value even through some of the moments of expository dialogue. As the events of the film are all set on the same day, Carpenter's film benefits from being set in the sleek look of night, which adds to the nightmarish quality of a Manhattan run amok.

Carpenter takes a chance on Kurt Russell for the actor's first foray at playing an action hero. Prior to this film, Kurt Russell had mostly been known for comedies and live-action Disney flicks, so this was definitely a departure for the already-established actor. Carpenter had been impressed with Russell in their first collaboration, the 1979 TV biopic Elvis, and used him again in several other of his best films, The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, further cementing Russell's role as a macho movie hero. Given how effective Russell is, it's amazing to think how different the film would be had the studio prevailed in nixing his casting for what they felt was a more macho, well-known actor, a la Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones. Russell is surrounded by a high quality cast of supporting actors, such as Lee Van Cleef (The Octagon), Ernest Borgnine (The Black Hole), Donald Pleasance, soul singer Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton (Alien), and Carpenter's then wife, Adrienne Barbeau (The Cannonball Run).

As with other Carpenter-penned works, the underlying commentary on the borough of Manhattan, where business, commerce, and Wall Street collide, being run by bloodthirsty criminals, falls in line with such films as They Live on suggesting that the country is in danger of being taken over by the yuppie elements. The President is held hostage to the realm of corporate interests, who make him bow in submission to their demands. "Snake" recalls the United States' flag (the Gadsden Flag), featuring the image of a rattlesnake and emblazoned with the motto, "Don't Tread on Me", often used as a symbol of Americans who disagree with the government.   Political subtext notwithstanding, what viewers love about the film, and pretty much any Carpenter flick, is its inherent b-movie sensibility. Interestingly, Escape from New York spawned many more b-movies from its cult success than it borrowed from, and remains one of the most influential films in the 'antihero' subgenre of action flicks.

-- Followed by Escape from L.A. (1996)

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo