Kurt Russell - Snake Plissken
Lee Van Cleef - Bob Hauk
Donald Pleasance - The President
Issac Hayes - The Duke of New York
Harry Dean Stanton - Brain
Adrienne Barbeau - Maggie
Ernest Borgnine - Cabbie
Frank Doubleday - Romero
Running Time - 99 Minutes
Score - 3 Howls Outta 4
With many of us so stuck sulking about the past and what's currently happening to us, we're always told to look ahead to the future. If life was a film made by a major studio, our futures wouldn't be so bright and inviting. According to our beloved filmmakers, the future is this dark, desolate place where we struggle to survive after some apocalyptic occurrence drives us to that point. You thought your current bullshit is bad? Imagine having your own government take the most populated island in the Continental United States and turning it into a prison to keep all of the morally challenged at bay in the near future.
Why does it have to be New York City? Haven't we suffered enough already in these movies?
Why not Connecticut?
Or New Jersey? Hell, they're responsible for the majority of the deteriorating Ozone Layer with all the hairspray they use! Why don't they get punished for their crimes on nature?
Oh that's right - the Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen fans won't allow it.
Well, I guess I'm gonna have to grow my hair out, buy some leather, put on an eyepatch, and speak like Clint Eastwood to bust some heads and prove my point like Snake Plissken in John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
In the futuristic 1997 [::scratches head::], Manhattan Island has been turned into some massive maximum-security prison surrounded by this giant wall to keep criminals isolated so they could live in anarchy. Things change when some hijackers take control of Air Force One to take The President (Donald Pleasance) hostage due to some cassette tape he's protecting inside a briefcase that's handcuffed to his arm. Secret Service escort the President out of the plane as the plane crashes on Manhattan Island, leaving the President vulnerable. The problem with that is the President is needed at some sort of summit with the Chinese in a day.
With the President in trouble, the man who commissions what happens on the island, Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), becomes extremely desperate for the President's safety. This forces him to find a former war hero and convicted criminal named Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), who's waiting to be transported onto the island to pay for his crimes. Given a deal where he'll receive a pardon if he brings back the President alive, Snake is given weapons and an airplane to swoop in and rescue the President before those twenty-four hours are up. If not, an explosive device injected into Snake's neck by Hauk will detonate.
If there was a Family Feud question that went, "We surveyed 100 people and put their top five answers on the board - Name a film directed by John Carpenter," ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK would definitely be on it. A successful sci-fi/action film back in 1981, the film has gradually increased its cult status due to Kurt Russell's iconic portrayal as anti-hero Snake Plissken, a man who defied authority [but acted as if he was following it] in order to get what he wanted for himself. It had been many years since I've watched ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and while it's not as great as I remember it, it's still a good film and one of John Carpenter's better ones for sure.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is definitely a "B" movie, but it's one that displays a lot of heart, intelligence, and style. This is proven just from the way the film is shot. John Carpenter, who pretty much created a name for himself at this point with ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, THE FOG, and especially HALLOWEEN, shows a director at the peak of his career [look at his recent films and tell me I'm lying]. It's almost as if instead of an action film, Carpenter is really filming a subtle horror movie that's masquerading as an action film. The film is mostly shot in the dark, giving the movie a very mysterious, desolate feeling and a lot of mood and atmosphere. Carpenter directs the film very slick, with beautiful shots of the computer animated airplane [supervised by pre-TERMINATOR and TITANIC director James Cameron] flying through New York City [which actually looks more realistic than some CGI I've seen in recent films] and nice angles during action sequences. He also paid homage to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD when all the convicts started to rise out of the sewers and greet Snake, Brain, Maggie, and Cabbie with their presence. I did feel some of the action sequences weren't as exciting as they should be. Plus some of the quieter scenes were kind of dull and too slow-paced for its own good. But even with the pacing being not as tight as it could have been, Carpenter shows why he was a director to be respected and to be watched. With a $7 million budget at his hands, Carpenter used it extremely well. Not HALLOWEEN or THE THING level of work here, but it's still very good.
The story and screenplay is good as well. Carpenter and Nick Castle [who played the original Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN] keep it simple. The film is about Snake going through hell finding and saving the President while meeting other characters along the way that only enhance the experience. It doesn't get overly complicated and we understand who's who and what side they're on, with a nice twist ending to conclude the film. I do think the script could have done more characterization for the characters in the film. While it's good to keep Snake as mysterious as possible, I do feel that we should have learned more about the supporting cast. Especially Adrienne Barbeau's Maggie and Henry Dean Stanton's Brain, who obviously some kind of history with Snake but it's never really fleshed out in a way that would help make their connection to the film and to the viewer stronger. I liked them and thought they were interesting, but I never got the full picture with them. They seemed more important than the film allowed them to be, which left me kind of hollow.
I also felt the screenplay didn't do enough with the setting. Besides establishing shots of the former World Trade Center and mentions of Broadway and Times Square, it never feels like New York. Hell, this could have been any other fucked up city. I wish more of the locale was used to the films advantage, especially during the action sequences, making you feel as if you were really watching a futuristic New York City in shambles. Speaking of the action, it could have been more thrilling. I mean, I liked what was given but there was a lot of potential that was untapped. The scene on the bridge with the car chase is pretty good but could have used more tension. The wrestling scene is just bizarre and could have been left out really. I know it was used to showcase Snake as an underdog and a badass, but it made me laugh more than it made me excited.
But other than that, the story was fine and very well-written. I liked the dialogue and how each character was different from the other. So while there was lack of character development, at least you knew enough about these characters to enjoy who they were and what they had to offer.
I felt the music by John Carpenter was very cool. It matched the darkness of the story well and was kind of haunting. The cinematography by Dean Cundey is also extremely beautiful. The picture is clear and the lights and darks are used perfectly just like on every other Carpenter film he's worked on. Very polished work.
The acting in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is excellent. Kurt Russell, who had been previously known for his family friendly Disney films, turns a complete 180 degrees and morphs into the badass Snake Plissken. Wearing a memorable outfit and talking in that Clint Eastwood rasp, Russell turns Snake into one cool mofo. The fact that Russell wasn't the studio's first choice [they wanted Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones] is even more surprising. I can't see any of those actors playing this role, which shows how great Kurt Russell is at it. You can tell the guy is having fun playing against type.
The supporting cast is just as good. Lee Van Cleef, who's known for his villainous roles in spaghetti Westerns that starred none other than Clint Eastwood, has great chemistry with Russell. He's having fun playing the "good guy" and trying to one-up Russell at every move. Issac Hayes is cool as The Duke, having the look and the voice of the villain. He commands your attention every time he appears and/or speaks. Donald Pleasance doesn't do much as The President but get bullets shot around him and be transformed into a blonde female, but he's still good - especially at the end where he goes nuts against The Duke. Pretty funny scene. Harry Dean Stanton is great as Brain, as he doesn't show much effort in playing the role to create a natural performance. Adrienne Barbeau doesn't do much as Maggie, but that gigantic rack of hers will be stuck in your brain for a long time after the film is over. John Carpenter was a lucky bastard to be married to that for a few years. Ernest Borgnine seemed a bit out of place here as Cabbie, but I guess every film needs a comic relief. He was very likable. And Tom Atkins is pretty much there as Rehme but I know a lot of people like the dude, so there ya go. And was that Jamie Lee Curtis as the narrator and computer voice? Very cool cast.
THE FINAL HOWL
If you want to see a John Carpenter film that's not HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is a pretty good choice. It doesn't use its fullest potential and there could have been a lot more done with the premise, but ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is still a classic film that's still pretty solid. A remake is going in production soon, but as far as track records for remakes go, I'm sure it'll won't be as memorable as the original. With good direction, great cinematography, and an excellent performance by Kurt Russell in probably his best and most famous role, there's no real reason to ESCAPE FROM [this] NEW YORK.