Dir. by John Carpenter - 1 hr. 39 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I'm not sure the original intention behind "Escape from New York" was to create a film that functions extremely well as a cult classic; I'd say it's more likely that someone wanted to get the flavor of "Mad Max" set in America, and to just make a gnarly movie all the way around. The idea behind the film is excellent, and the execution of the idea is solid, considering the budget for the film. The story has held up well, and even if some of the costumes and such seem bizarre, it's aged in a way that actually works pretty well.
1n 1997 (which is now, according to the film), crime has skyrocketed, and Manhattan has been abandoned as a defacto prison island. Those who enter do not leave. Air Force One is hijacked by a crazed militant, who rams the plane into a building, leaving only the President (Donald Pleaseance) surviving, having escaped in an escape pod. The President is quickly kidnapped by prisoners, to be ransomed. The problem with this is that the President's presence is required at a peace summit, which will fall apart if he is not rescued roughly twenty-four hours hence. The out-of-the-box solution: enlist the help of notorious criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former special ops soldier with an eye-patch and a perpetually shitty attitude. Snake gets offered a full pardon in exchange for being dropped into Manhattan and rescuing the President within (now) twenty-two hours. Fail, and Snake will die, thanks to micro-explosive implants in his neck.
One of the things most striking about movies like "Escape from New York" is the vastly different opinion of the city itself. Now, movies that take place in New York often have characters viewing their surroundings with a magical gleam in their eyes, and there's an "only in New York" tone to a lot of what happens. But if you travel back to the films from the '70s and '80s, before everything got cleaned up, you see that the prevailing opinion was that New York was a cesspool, overfilled with people who are only half a step above animals, decorated in aerosol, and generally an unsavory place to be. Granted, this film was supposed to be roughly fifteen years in the future, but "Escape from New York's" New York has the ambiance of a dump, with all the rats scurrying around for added flavor. In this environment, it's not crazy to think that the only reasonable response to getting someone out of a trash heap is to send in a foul-mouthed, specially-trained asshole in.
If you were going to cast a weird, violent dystopian sci-fi movie, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better batch of actors than here. "Escape" was part of Kurt Russell's attempt to escape his Disney past, but there's also Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York (A number one!), Harry Dean Stanton as the Brain, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef... That's a good stack of distinct, oddball actors that all bring something unique to what's admittedly a pretty odd film. And they all pop up one after another; it's like getting a gift inside of each gift that you've received. As far as the action goes, it's not bad for what it is. Fight scenes weren't choreographed in 1981 the way that they are now; a punch or two is about all anyone's going to get. "Escape" isn't short on action, but it relies more heavily on the tone of the film, the grimy setting, and the imposed tension of a literal deadline hanging over Snake's head. And it succeeds on that front.
Part of what I like about "Escape" is that it's a distinct kind of film from a specific point in the history of cinema. There are certainly other films like this, and some of them have their own merits, but "Escape" is weird enough, and violent enough, and just plainly good enough of a story (with a really good protagonist with an excellent sneer) that I enjoy watching it every so often. Some of the cheesiness in it is due to budgetary constraints, but if you sit down and watch "Waterworld," a bloated dystopian sci-fi film that is in the same lineage as "Escape," it's clear that money can't fix everything. It's fun watching Kurt Russell be a badass, it's fun watching Ernest Borgnine do anything, and it's fun to watch "Escape from New York."
3. 5 / 5 - TV (HD)