I was looking for an appropriate film to review on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and Escape from New York feels like the obvious choice. The film features a famous, though now dated with poor special effects, of Snake Plissken landing a glider on top the World Trade Center in the far flung future of 1997 when New York City has become an island prison for the worst American has to offer. The film broke director John Carpenter out of the horror film genre he had been working in for the previous four years with solid results.
Escape from New York is set in a dystopian future America in which the crime rote rose to 400% in the aftermath of a brutal war. New York City has been walled off from the rest of the United States to serve as a prison for all sorts of vicious psychos. Air force One happens to crash in the heart of the city on its way to an important summit meeting with the soviet Union and China. Snake Plisskwn, a former soldier sentenced to NYC, is given 24 hours to fin the president in exchange for a pardon.
You have to get passed a lot of shallow plotting to enjoy Escape from New York. It sounds ridiculous enough to wall of the capital of the world as a prison. If the world truly is dystopian, taking New York City out of the picture is probably the biggest factor. Why is Air Force One flying over the largest population of entrapped cut throats on the planet? Criminals holding the president hostage in exchange for their freedom is not all that creative, either. Nevertheless, the film works because of the tension it manages to build up and the cynical tone throughout.
Shot on a paltry $ 6 million, Escape from New York is effectively dark and minimalist. The special effects are often lacking, with many scenes being obvious miniatures. But I really like the atmosphere. Carpenter does a lot with very little. New york has become a place of destitution and depravity. How bright and lush can you expect the place to be?
It is the cast that truly makes the film. In particular, Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Plissken as a cynical man of few words, but much ’80’s action hero cliché is the best aspect of the film. Curvy Adrienne Barbeau at the height of her sex appeal runs a close second. One feels a certain disappointment at how the quality of the remainder of the cast is underutilized. Donald Pleasance is just sort of there as the president. Lee Van Cleef spends most of the film scurrying between computer screens as the Police Commissioner. The film spens so much time setting up the Duke of New York as the ultimate fearsome crime lord that it is a severe let down when even Isaac Hayes cannot generate any menace playing the role. Throw in Harry Dean Stanton and wonder how a cast like that cannot make Escape from New York shine. Even the best are only as good as the material with which they have to work.
I am not as down on Escape from New York as I may seem. It is still a good movie in spite of its flaws. Carpenter pulls of the combination of science fiction/action film with enough ‘80’s social commentary--high crime in New York City , late Cold War militarization--with being shlocky with the former or preachy with the latter. Neither of the points is to say Escape from New York is a deep film. It most certainly is not. The material is holding back a stellar cast as far as these kinds of films go. But overlook some bad plotting and weak script points, and you can enjoy one of the first film in the ’80’s action film mold that Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Arnnuld would go on to perfect.
As far as I am concerned, Carpenter has not hit his stride by 1981. He had mostly worked in the horror genre, of which I am not a huge fan, but his paring with Russell is magic. They will work together again with better results, but Escape from new York possess many of the latent chocolate and peanut butter combination of Carpenter and Russell.
Rating: *** (out of 5)