John Carpenter in Review: Escape from New York (1981)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Issac Hayes, and Harry Dean Stanton
Plot: In a near future, Air Force One goes down over New York City, which has been walled up and used as a prison. In order to save the President, the US military sends in savvy convicted felon, Snake Plissken.
In the future, crime in Manhattan increased 400%.In an attempt to control it, a 50-foot wall was erected surrounding the area, and it was turned into a maximum security prison. More accurately, it is a penal colony where everyone is free to roam Manhattan with no guards in sight. Considering it was made in the ’80s, it is charmingly outdated. It is so cheesy that it is fun to watch a movie that takes place in the ’90s that is so pre-apocalyptic. It would have to be a pretty dystopic 1997 for the government to give up on such a landmark American city. In this world, the President was on his way to a peace treaty meeting with the Soviet Union and China when a terrorist crashed the plane into the walled up Manhattan.
Just like Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter seems to be using ’70s exploitation and a Western premise to his advantage. The marriage between them is impeccable. It still has Assault’s ghoulish thugs and massive gunplay, but this time around, Carpenter adds a much more epic scope, as opposed to Assault’s claustrophobic one. The action mixes all out shootouts and espionage sleuthing as Snake gets himself out of one situation just to end up in another. The pacing gets a little episodic when it tries to keep upping the ante. The major set piece in all the violence for me was this crazy gladiator fight in which Snake must compete with a man much bigger than him using baseball bats with nails sticking out of them.
What helps make it charming is Kurt Russell selling the premise. His character, Snake, is iconic. His mullet top and trademark eye-patch make for a memorable visage. His grizzly voice and nihilistic demeanor stand out during the decade of one-liner spewing cartoon characters, ever more so among so many eccentric supporting characters. Russell creates an impressively cold-hearted individual; one who is so cold-hearted that when he seems to melt and care for the people he decides to take with him, you get the sense that they are still just game pieces to him.
The supporting cast is filled out by genre favorites. Adrienne Barbeau is the horror bombshell staple. Harry Dean Stanton is a strong go-to character actor who is resourceful at making 2-dimensional archetypes seem charismatic. Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, and Donald Pleasance add a rare sense of legitmacy. Borgnine’s comedic timing is pitch perfect and not at all too goofy to ruin the dark tone, while Pleasance’s line reading is impeccable. Van Cleef puts his tough guy persona to good use, I just wish he had a little more to do. Isaac Hayes was a bold choice that pays off. Instead of hamming it up, a possible choice given the strange character, Hayes goes for steely resolve, or at least an amateur know-how that looks like steely resolve.
Escape from New York is a genre staple that will probably be remembered more fondly for the characters it employs rather than the thriller it tasks them with.