The film's reputation surely outstrips its actual content, but it still contains enough action and danger and really weird stuff to satisfy fans of low-budget cult classics. Plus, it's got a colorful action hero at its core, some bizarre characters, and innovative set designs. What more could you ask for in "Escape from New York"? Yeah, I suppose you could ask for a good movie, but you can't have everything.
This one was made when director John Carpenter was riding high with "Halloween" (1978), "The Fog" (1980), "The Thing" (1982), "Christine" (1983), "Starman" (1984), and "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986). "Escape from New York" (1981) was so well received over the years, it spawned a sequel, "Escape from L.A.," in 1996. Carpenter was on a roll.
The setting is the second-best part of the picture. It's New York City in the near future, 1997. OK, it's not so near anymore, but you get the idea. The whole island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison for the country's toughest felons, surrounded on all sides by a fifty-foot containment wall, with the bridges and waterways mined. The island is encircled by troops, but inside there are no guards, "only prisoners and the world they make for themselves." The rules, we're told, are simple: "Once you go in, you don't come out." The landscape looks desolate and war-torn, a bleak, murky atmosphere that slightly predates and perhaps presages the release of other groundbreaking future-noir films like "Blade Runner" and "The Road Warrior."
By a quirk of fate (actually, a quirk of Carpenter's pen, since he cowrote the screenplay), the President of the United States has been hijacked in Air Force One, and as he's being flown over New York, he jettisons out of the plane in an escape pod, landing him dead center in the middle of the penitentiary, where he is immediately grabbed by the inmates and held hostage.
What to do is the question. You see, it's not like the military can just go in and get him. The prisoners threaten to kill the President if anyone comes near the island. So, the government sends in its best covert agent, a former war hero turned crook named Snake Plissken, who is about to be sent to the pen for life. Why Plissken? Why not? He's cool, naturally. The deal is, if Plissken rescues the President, Plissken goes free forever. But there's a catch: Plissken has to do it within twenty-four hours. Why twenty-four hours? It's good for the plot, that's why, and because the President has to attend a summit conference within that time and deliver a taped message to the world's leaders that will prevent a holocaust that may destroy all of Mankind. Or something of that sort.
Plissken goes in alone, one guy against an army of crazies in an entire city, and he does his job. Indeed, to insure he does his job within twenty-four hours, the government has injected him with a capsule that will explode and kill him at the end of that time unless he gets back and has it deactivated.
Needless to say, it's all very silly stuff, the nonsense of comic-book adventures. Good thing it's Snake Plissken, too, the most unpatriotic patriot imaginable, or we might have had to worry. Not that he isn't noticeable, either, walking down Broadway carrying a cannon. I suppose Carpenter could have asked Sly Stallone to do the role, but he would have cost too much, and, besides, Russell fits the part. He isn't a muscular hunk, but he's trim and mean.
I'm one of those people who have a grudging admiration for the film. Grudging because I know how bad it is: awkward pacing, preposterous script, nonexistent acting, clunky music (blung-blung, blung-blung, written by Carpenter in his typically simplistic style), and oppressive tone. Admiration because I can see what Carpenter is able to do with a genuinely prescient idea, a few good actors, and little else (the total budget was $5,000,000, less than what a lot of stars these days are paid alone). And, well, I just like it. I think my admiration is largely attributable to the actors, though, who for me are the best part of the picture. Not the acting, mind you, the actors.
Snake is played by Carpenter's favorite star, Kurt Russell, and Snake is one tough antihero with attitude. In fact, he's undoubtedly the major reason the film has built up as big a following as it has. How do we know Snake is tough? Start with his name. How many fellows do you know named "Snake"? Then there's the beat-up leather jacket, the stubble on his face and the hair to his shoulders, the squinty eyes, the clenched-teeth Clint Eastwood drawl, and the cobra tattooed on his stomach. Plus, the eye patch. Why doesn't he wear an artificial eye like anyone else would in his situation? Because the patch makes him look tough, of course. Besides, it's sort of the Indiana Jones syndrome. You know how Jones the professor is all meek and mild looking, with a nearsightedness requiring eyeglasses, but as Jones the adventurer he wears the lion-tamer garb and for inexplicable reasons no longer needs glasses. He simply looks tougher. Well, Snake looks tough. It also helps that Snake behaves tough and macho, too, but, above all, it's the appearance. Image is everything.
The other actors portray characters no less eccentric or appealing. Veteran screen heavy Lee Van Cleef plays Bob Hauk, the Police Commissioner and head of security at the penitentiary. He is appropriately grim-jawed and unrelenting, the guy who determines that Snake is the world's only hope and the guy who sends him in. He's tough, too, because he wears just one earring. Two earrings and he would have simply been fashionable. Moving on, Donald Pleasance plays the President with a touch of impish humor, not quite foolish yet not entirely dignified. Ernest Borgnine plays Cabbie, the taxi driver who serves as a kind of narrative connection amongst the various plot elements. Isaac Hayes plays the bigger-than-life boss of all of the prison, the self-appointed "Duke of New York." The great character actor Harry Dean Stanton plays Harold Helman, aka "Brain," one of the Duke's right-hand toadies and eventually Snake's reluctant ally. But "Don't call me Harold." Adrienne Barbeau plays Maggie, Brain's girlfriend; Tom Atkins plays Rehme, the Commissioner's adjutant; Season Hubley plays a woman in the rubble of a Chock Full O'Nuts store; and people with names like Romero and Cronenberg fill out the cast as in-joke references to other famous cult-classic horror directors. None of these players have too much to do, understand, but, like Snake, they're notable for their "look."
The mood of "Escape from New York" is dark, dour, and dismal to a fault, with only some intermittent scraps of black humor to relieve the grimness; but its characters and production designs carry the day, at least for a while. Then everything begins to wear on a person and only the dedicated cult follower may be able to bear up under it for repeated viewings. You can't think too much about any of the details of the story because it is, after all, a comic-book adventure and none of it supposed to be plausible. Nevertheless, only so much of this silliness can be stretched very far.
The movie was filmed by cinematographer Dean Cundey largely in a burned-out area of St. Louis that doubles for the apocalyptic New York City, and much of the lighting he used is natural to the real-life locations. Carpenter and production designer Joe Alves scouted out every broken-down warehouse and building they could find to duplicate the decayed city of the future they wanted. The result is actually quite persuasive, given the budget the filmmakers had to work with, but the screen images they obtained are not always pristine, nor likely meant to be.
Compared to previous copies of the film I've seen, this 2.13:1 ratio, anamorphic transfer is the best so far and probably represents the original print fairly well. Still, it's somewhat blurry, muddy, ragged, and veiled, especially in outdoor shots. In addition, there are a few undulating lines, mostly in the vertical windows of the cityscape, but at least there is little grain, except that which undoubtedly came inherent to the footage.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix maintains an excellent left-to-right front stereo spread and includes a few decent rear-channel effects. Expect helicopters, naturally, and plenty of them, flying overhead and all around. The bass is good, too, not particularly deep but loud. Carpenter's minimalist music doesn't need much ambient reinforcement, but it gets it anyway.
This special-edition set has been fitted out with two discs, although, to be honest, there isn't a whole lot on the second disc. Nevertheless, the discs make a handsome package with their foldout box, fancy, embossed slipcase, and "Snake Plissken Chronicles #1 DVD Edition" comic book. Disc one contains the feature film, thirty-two scene selections, and two audio commentaries, the first by director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell and the second by producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves.
Disc two has only a couple of important items: The first is a new, twenty-three minute documentary, "Return to Escape From New York," that includes reminiscences by the director, producer, writer, production designer, cinematographer, and stars. Isaac Hayes is the only cast member who doesn't seem to have aged a day in over two decades. The second important item is the film's never-before-seen, ten-minute opening reel, with optional commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. Both men admit the sequence's deletion was all for the better because it does move along rather slowly, which would have only weakened an opening that gets off to a pretty slow start to begin with. Then, there are a few trailers for other MGM releases on DVD; a brief text-and-picture segment, "The Making of John Carpenter's Snake Plissken Chronicles Comic"; a trailer montage called "Snake Bites"; an original widescreen trailer; two teaser trailers; and a gallery of behind-the-scenes, production, and lobby card photos.
Could I possibly recommend "Escape from New York" to anyone who had never seen it before or wasn't already a dedicated fan? Not on your life. Frankly, it's not a very good picture from any objective standard of filmmaking I can think of. Yet it's got such a fascinating premise and Russell makes such a remarkable, square-jawed, squinty-eyed, closemouthed hero that it's hard not to like it. At least once. Unfortunately, for me that once was the first time I saw it, and on my several subsequent viewings, including this one, I was never as impressed.
So I say if you've never seen the film before and you've read this far into the review, go ahead and watch the movie. See what practically everyone else in the world has already seen, and then make up your own mind about it. Just be sure it's a rental.
Needless to say, for the dedicated "Escape from New York" fan, the set is a must buy.