MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Sci-Fi Action/ Stars: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Season Hubley, Charles Cyphers, Frank Doubleday, John Strobel, Nancy Stephens, George Buck Flower, Ox Baker; Voice of: Jamie Lee Curtis/ Runtime: 99 minutes
I know I have said this before about celebrated film helmer Ridley Scott, but I really do not think there is a single film director by the name of John Carpenter in this world. Now before you go and pick up your torches and pitch forks and threaten to cancel me on Twitter please allow me to elaborate. What I mean when I say I do not think there is one is that I feel there are two distinct sides to the iconic film helmer that is John Carpenter. There is the film helmer who enjoys giving audiences some downright bleak and yet also chilling horror films like the 1978 Halloween, the 1982 Thing, 1987’s Prince of Darkness, 1983’s Christine, 1998’s Vampires, 1994’s highly underrated In the Mouth of Madness that I love and am desperately trying to find so I can do a review of…..and 2001’s Ghosts of Mars (I kid, I kid). Then there is the John Carpenter who loves making some truly distinct action slices of cinema that are always fun to watch including 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, and of course the slice of cinema I am reviewing today 1981’s truly amazing Escape from New York. Indeed not only is this film Carpenter’s first partnership with iconic actor Kurt Russell, but it is also a terrific slice of cinema that is consistently entertaining from beginning to end, extremely well-made on both sides of the camera, and one that (even with a 7 million dollar budget) proves to be like a fair amount of Carpenter’s other flicks from the 70s and 80s in that it manages to hold up phenomenally well to this very day. Suffice it to say that although there may be an issue here and there with this slice of cinema there is nevertheless no denying that Escape from New York is an absolute blast and one that if you haven’t seen you owe it to yourself to stop reading right now and check out. I promise you will not regret it.
The plot is as follows: Escape from New York gets its riveting saga under way as we are introduced to a alternate reality where in the year 1988, the amount of crime occurring in the United States had dramatically spiked to no less a number than 400% (clearly making this an unexpected and unofficial Purge prequel). As a result of all this criminal activity, we see that the once most costly piece of land in the United States, aka Manhattan Island, has become so taken over by chaos and violent behavior that the government has been left with no choice, but to transform the island into a giant prison that has been enclosed and surrounded on every single side by the police who now act more like soldiers than cops. Inside the prison however there is no cells, no solitary confinement, no guards, no lights out, and no sloppy prison food. Rather, it is just the inmates themselves and the societies they have made for themselves and which are comprised of every single kind of deplorable individual imaginable. Yet for all this lawlessness there is a single rule to be found: “once you go in, you don’t come out”. Suffice it to say this once-great American city is now a grungy and anarchy-stricken nightmare. Yet for all this mayhem and chaos, it seems things are about to get a whole lot worse. This is because a group of terrorists have decided to take over no less an aircraft than Air Force One. Yet during the chaos we see that, before the plane is able to crash into a building in Downtown Manhattan, the President is able to jettison out in a cherry-looking escape pod only to wind up getting swiftly nabbed by a ruthless crime lord who calls himself the Duke of New York and who plans to attempt to negotiate with the government and trade them the scared out of his mind Commander-in-Chief for the freedom of every single person on the island. It is with that in mind that we see the slimy and dastardly head of police, one Bob Hauk, decide to offer a new prisoner, and legendary former Special Forces operative, by the name of Snake Plissken a deal that seems like it was literally sent straight from Heaven. This deal consists of if Snake, a guy who is highly trained in black ops, is able to get the President out in 24 hours he will be given a complete and full pardon for every single illegal activity that he has engaged in thus making him a free man. If he is not able to however, an implant that Hauk has placed in his neck will go off and proceed to sever his carotid artery thus causing him to bleed to death in minutes (yikes!). Thus with the clock ticking, we see Snake covertly make his way into the city and team-up with a group of allies including a former associate by the name of Brain, Brain’s girl Maggie, and a kooky yet highly knowledgeable of the streets cab driver called “Cabbie” in order to not only save the President’s life, but also his own hide before time runs out.
Now right off the bat it is worth noting that in terms of technical achievements behind the camera that Escape From New York is the very type of cinema that immediately requires you to ensure that your disbelief go on a hour and 39 minute walk around the block as it were. Thus I think it should be said that credit must undoubtedly be given to both film helmer John Carpenter and his co-scribe Nick Castle for their immense creativity in coming up with not only the world of this slice of cinema, but the core narrative as well. Yet even with that being said credit should also go to the brilliant effects and stunt teams, to the head of production design Joe Alves for making this film look as wonderfully grungy as possible, to costume designer Stephen Loomis (no relation to a Dr. Sam Loomis sadly) for the terrific costume choices for each character to help them stand out in their own way and so we know who is who, and to Brian Chin for creating some miniatures that are truly out of this world and fit in darn near seamlessly with the rest of the film. Together these brilliant minds have managed to join forces to conjure up a riveting look at an, at the time, alternate future for the Big Apple that is made even more incredible when you discover the majority of the exteriors are actually from both St. Louis and L.A. We also are able to see that in the helmer’s chair that Carpenter, utilizing Elicon equipment, is able to capture just as many little details from rats scurrying about unbothered to figures just popping up out of the shadows as he is the big picture which often takes the form of the crumbling, desolate, and carved-out shell of what used to be Manhattan. I can also say that the photography department headed by frequent early Carpenter collaborator Dean Cundey does a magnificent job of brilliantly mixing a immersive blue that the rain spattered surfaces of the city manage to give off alongside a riveting yet also chilly orange glow that we get from the multitude of street fires that are seemingly everywhere you look and which really go a long way toward making this slice of cinema look absolutely fantastic. Finally, I guess I should also point out that Carpenter does a great job in terms of this slice of cinema’s musical accompaniment which is brilliantly equal parts percussive-based and resonating all rolled into one. Indeed not only is it one that fits the film it is operating within perfectly, but it also does a great job of supporting the moments in the film that require it the most such as the action beats when they do occur. Suffice it to say therefore that for a slice of cinema that only had a budget of 7 million dollars, Carpenter and his crew do some absolutely phenomenal work behind the camera in bringing it so vividly to life.
Now the cast in this slice of cinema is absolutely nothing short of phenomenal. Indeed in the supporting cast alone, there is a genuine smorgasbord of talent to be found including Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasance, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton and every single one of them brings no more and no less than their collective A-game to this slice of cinema. Indeed in the role of the self-proclaimed Duke of New York, Hayes does a terrific job at bringing both a ruthless drive and dogged determination to the part. Meanwhile Donald Pleasance does a typically engaging job at playing a President who, as this slice of cinema goes on, starts to show more and more of who he really is as he transitions from captivity to freedom. We also get a wonderful performance from Adrienne Barbeau who brings to the role of Maggie a delightful blend of practicality, down-to-earth reliability, and also very much in love with her main squeeze Brain who she has just as much in common with her as he doesn’t have in common with her. I also love Henry Dean Stanton in the role of Brain. I mean I don’t know of many people I could still like even in the face of being a low-key hustling scumbag, but if I had to make a list I would definitely put Stanton near the top. Another actor I would put on a list for people who excel at playing scumbags you love to hate would be screen icon Lee Van Cleef and he is terrific in his role of Hauk. Indeed Van Cleef does a great job, complete with his dagger-style stare, at portraying an authority figure who is equal parts methodical and merciless. Finally, I also love that Carpenter was able to get screen legend Ernest Borgnine in this. Indeed in the role of “Cabbie”, Borgnine brings a decency and seemingly never-ending cheer to a role that could have just been a kooky character and nothing more. Yet at the heart of this slice of cinema is screen icon Kurt Russell in the role that made him a legend: Snake Plissken. Indeed he may have been a child actor/ star for Disney back in the day, but with this part Russell is finally allowed to unleash his inner badass and in the process give us a truly iconic character for the ages. Indeed Russell makes this character truly immortal right down to his gruff yet relaxed demeanor, cynical one-lined responses, and lone-wolf manner to say nothing of his iconic eye-patch and leather jacket that he rocks in a way that I honestly feel only Kurt Russell could have pulled off then and most likely ever will be able to….unless that is if his son Wyatt wanted to give it a go. Otherwise this is Kurt’s part through and through and he owns it brilliantly.
All in all there is no denying that when John Carpenter and Kurt Russell join forces the end results have, by and large, always resulted in genuine movie magic. Indeed it was through this partnership that we got 1979’s Elvis, 1982’s The Thing, 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, 1996’s Escape from Los Angeles, and of course this slice of cinema. Indeed make no mistake there are people who will most likely nitpick this slice of cinema to death or who don’t have the desire to appreciate a movie that is a genuine cult and popcorn film in every sense of the word. Having said that however, if you are willing to give this slice of cinema a chance you will be surprised to find a film that is downright riveting, taut, consistently entertaining, phenomenally filmed by a highly creative team behind the camera, and phenomenally performed by a truly gifted cast in front of the camera. Suffice it to say that Escape from New York is more than just an incredible cult film. Rather it’s an incredible slice of cinema period and genuine proof of movie magic at its finest. On a scale of 1-5 I give Escape from New York “81” a solid 4 out of 5