Escape from New York Reviews
'call me Snake'
Probably the roughest toughest coolest badass since Bob Fett and he has an eye patch. Not only is Snake one cool son of a bitch but he is hired for the mission by another cool son of a bitch. Lee Van Cleef is Hauk, the guy in charge of this operation and is one hardass leather faced amigo...even at this ripe old age. The mission, we all know it, get into Manhattan, get the President and bounce back across the prison walls before anyone knows they were there, simple.
'the name's Plissken!'
What can I say about this action thriller? its the best damn flick Carpenter made, its got everything you could need. For a start the cast in this film is truly epic, I mean look at it! some massive cult names there and this film was still a small budget affair! Carpenter having made some already great small budget films continued to hammer out top class thrills whilst utilizing basic simple ideas and without the aid of top effects.
The atmosphere of the film is electric all the way through, so dark, creepy and almost medieval in appearance as Plissken wades through the criminal scum. Naturally the bad guys are your typical cliched 80's bunch of fantasy cyberpunk fetish gear wearing bikers that wouldn't look too outta place in the 'Mad Max' universe. Stereotypical now...twas how it was then.
The visuals for the film are bleak and gloomy, plenty of shadow, not much is shown despite the sky high concept. Much is clever use of lighting camera angles models matte work sets and hard work. You really have to give it to Carpenter and his team for the way they managed to get this film looking so flippin' good, at no point would you think your not on the grimy streets of NY. On top of that the film does have that near futuristic feel as though it could be accurate. Its not over the top with silly gadgets, weapons or robots etc...a reachable possible apocalyptic future which makes it more scary.
'When I get back, I'm going to kill you'
To be honest this film is all about Plissken, the new sheriff in movie town at the time, the new 'Dirty Harry'. If it wasn't for this character the film would never have been as good, this character makes the film. Not only is he ice cool with deadly smartass verbal, he dresses uniquely (for the time), looks butch, plenty of stubble, doesn't give a shit and is a complete loose cannon. Cinematic history was made when this fellow stepped out from the shadows, the ultimate anti hero.
Always amused me how Russell's costume kinda looked as if Carpenter and co simply threw it together at the last minute. Some military cargo pants, a vest and those odd silver shin pads...job done. Such a simple almost crappy look but its now iconic.
Not only is the main character a legend the musical score is also probably Carpenter's best. Previous horror flick 'Halloween' set the bar for its spine tingling tunes, his next film 'The Fog' was also haunting but did seem too similar to 'Halloween'. Before all that 'Assault' had a great videogame-like score which in my opinion is more on track with 'Escapes' theme.
For this film you still have the now classic electric tones but its much deeper than 'Assault', less of a videogame sense and more of a pending doom sense. Its pretty much Snake's theme tune really, his personal track as he swaggers slowly across this crumbling earth.
'The president of what?'
Like all Carpenter films the plot is simple and straight forward, visuals are just enough but the cast make it work. The fact Plissken is on a health related time limit really adds some tension to the whole plot and keeps you glued to the action. The fact you don't know who will survive, no guarantees for anyone, makes the film even more fun and original for the time.
The action keeps going right to the bitter end and Snake gets his sweet anarchic last word/gesture. The film almost corrupts you as you watch, Snake's badassery is so infectious, you can't help but cheer as he strides away after fudging over the President and what he stands for. An almost anti-authoritarian vibe that runs right through this film which always works well in films.
Ps. Not only is the film tops but the films poster is also excellent.
'No human compassion'
Set in the then near distant future of 1997, the world has become a messy dystopia, and Manhattan island has become an isolated prison. When Air Force One crashes there, the President (and a valuable audio tape) are taken hostage by a ruthless gang leader, and the decision is made to have the rescue mission be conducted by Snake Plissken- a war hero turned criminal who is promised a full pardon if he can complete the task. To ensure he'll cooperate, Snake is implanted with an explosive device that will go off if not deactivated within 24 hours.
What follows is a tense jaunt through a desolate wasteland populated by colorful character played by the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, and Donald Pleasence. As Snake, Kurt Russell absolutely dominates, and this is easily one of his best and most iconic roles.
As a Missourian, it makes me proud to see St. Louis used as a stand in for Manhattan a majority of the time. The cinematography and set design are great, and you really believe that this place has become a really dangerous world. The music is typical Carpenter, but fun, and the set pieces are decently executed.
The film has aged a bit better than I figured, and, even though it's not glossy, it has a lot of charm due to the creativity employed to counteract the low-budget. All in all this is a great genre movie, and easily one of Carpenter's best. Strongly recommended.
In the year 1997, the entire city of New York has become a maximum security prison, holding all of society's criminals. All the bridges leading into the city are cut off, a large wall is built along the shoreline and a large police force is based there to stop any attempted escapees. Things take a turn for the worse though, when the President's (Donald Pleasance) plane is shot down and he has to eject. Unfortunately for everyone he lands in New York forcing a rescue mission. It's here that prisoner and ex-soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent into the decaying city. If he manages to rescue the president then he'll win his own life and freedom in return.
Straight from the off-set, this film sets the tone with Carpenter's own foreboding music score, luring you into an anarchy ridden, post-apocalyptic New York. Like all of Carpenter's works during the 70's and 80's, the concept is sheer brilliance. There are very few directors these days that have the vision or originality that this man had. Unfortunately, Carpenter can't seem to hit the same heights these days but he was way ahead of his game around this time and this film stands as one of his most recognised and has a fervent cult following. Like a lot of cult movies though, it has it's flaws; the settings are basic and it has the old flashing computers with an abundance of lightbulbs on show but it's testament to Carpenter's vision that his concept overrides these dated faults and the film still manages to remain suitably futuristic. Granted, in some cases it can come across as amateurish - even self-conscious - but good sci-fi primarily works on it's idea's and Carpenter certainly applies the idea well here. This is a film that confidently relies on it's premise and it works an absolute treat. It is also helps that it doesn't take itself too seriously and has it's tongue stuck firmly in it's cheek. That's thanks-in-large to Kurt Russell, who delivers a string of great one-liners in a memorable and iconic central performance as Snake Plissken - one of cinema's finest anti-heroes. Unfortunately, the film does succumb to some formulaic action material but it's credit to Carpenter's pacing and Russell's wisecracks for keeping the films head above ground. Despite it's style and substance becoming a casualty to the action, it's still a lot of fun, regardless of it's occasional wandering.
A great sci-fi cautionary tale that a contemporary audience can still identify with. It can also proudly take it's place amongst the great B-movies and cult classics of our time and lasting proof, that John Carpenter was one of the finest directors working during the 1970's & 80's.
Almost by definition, post-apocalypse films don't date very well. Those that do still hold up - Mad Max, The Road, even The Bed-Sitting Room - succeed by being 'universal' in the ideas they examine but crucially vague about when or even how we got to this point in time. Most films about the end of the world are actually about the problems in present society, which can make even the best-made films dated in a matter of years. It doesn't take long to realise for instance that, if the Daleks did invade in 2150, we wouldn't still be driving Bedford vans and eating Sugar Puffs.
Carpenter's original script was written at the time of the Watergate scandal, when the idea of a criminal rescuing a president would have carried a great deal of satirical bite. Had he got the money to make it when Nixon resigned, he could have had a hit on his hands which packed as big a political punch as All The President's Men. Telling that story during the Reagan years may still work on some level; turning Manhattan Island into a prison seems every bit as outlandish as the Star Wars programme. But whatever else the original script had simply doesn't gel, turning the film into something far more straightforwardly heroic, if not overtly patriotic.
Like They Live a few years after it, Escape from New York is an action movie with large overtones of the western genre. Both John Nada and Snake Plissken are Carpenter's own takes on The Man with No Name, and Kurt Russell's performance is on one level a pretty good impression of Clint Eastwood. The film is built around the classic 'one last job' scenario, in which Plissken is offered his freedom to do the one thing he really doesn't want to do. There is great potential in this character, as a classic anti-hero who eschews authority and is only convinced to obey when threatened with a slow and painful death.
Even considering its low budget (around $6m), Escape from New York does look like a film that was made in a hurry. To film some of the key scenes, including the aftermath of the plane crash, the crew had to sneak onto empty streets without permits at 3am, in some cases dumping truckloads of junk onto the roads to create the feeling of chaos. Even from the start the story is being hurried along, with the first 15 minutes doing whatever is necessary to get Snake into the city, and from thereon in the film wastes no time in getting him out. This is not a Chinatown-like mystery, with brooding detectives slowly uncovering a hideous truth; it is a simple, straightforward story and a race against time, and as a piece of efficient filmmaking, it delivers.
This rapid approach to shooting does create some obvious continuity errors: in one scene, it's sunrise on one side of the island while still midnight on the other. But the first problem with the film is that it's so quick-fire and so efficient that you begin to wonder whether there's anything actually going on in the pauses. Although it's lost the Watergate backdrop, there is still the potential to explore a number of interesting ideas, if not enough to fill a whole series of films.
The set-up of the film, with a whole city being walled off and turned into a prison, hints at the tendency of civilised societies to isolate and shun its criminals rather than deal with them upfront and try to understand them, something which Carpenter tackled previously in Assault on Precinct 13. The unveiling of a criminal society, presided over by the Duke of New York, puts forward the notion of criminals being every bit as civilised and cunning as either their captors or the protagonist, something reflected throughout the work of Michael Mann. And the conflicts over power, with Harry Dean Stanton's character controlling the city's only source of oil, taps into the very same territory as the first Mad Max film.
But as things evolve, it becomes clear that the film isn't really interested in any of these ideas. The film is like a land speed record attempt in which the driver is wearing blinkers; the object is to get from A to B as quickly as possible, and there is no chance to look around or think about anything else. Whenever Carpenter does attempt to tackle deeper issues, it's done in a half-hearted manner using imagery which is surprisingly unoriginal.
Huge sections of the film owe a big debt to Mad Max in a way which really demonstrates all that was spot on about George Miller's debut effort. The criminal gang in Escape from New York don't get enough time to establish themselves, and for all Isaac Hayes' best efforts, he's not as intimidating as the Toe-Cutter. The various street gangs (which reference George A. Romero by calling themselves 'The Crazies') dress every bit as extremely as the bikers, right down to Isaac Hayes' right hand man who looks unnervingly like Keith Flint from The Prodigy. And then there is the fight scene, in which Kurt Russell takes on a wrestler with a huge beard. It may predate the Thunderdome fight in Mad Max 3 by about four years, but there is a tonal similarity to the series in the combination of camp humour and realistic violence.
This brings us on to problems with the characters. Escape from New York has more than its fair share of them, from Snake himself to Ernest Borgnine's chirpy Cabby, and from the Duke of New York to the odd couple of Maggie and Brain. But Carpenter sets up so many of these potentially interesting and quirky characters that he can't quite decide who to focus on and ends up having to kill them off in quick succession so that just Snake and the President survive. In the bridge sequence, where Cabby's taxi gets destroyed by several mines, he is incredibly cavalier about who cops it and when.
This jumpy approach carries over into the performances themselves. Harry Dean Stanton is an enjoyable screen presence, and he plays Brain very well - so well that you wish he had more screen time. Adrienne Barbeau, on the other hand, seems to spend most of her time either firing a gun or walking into wide shots that show off her cleavage. Ernest Borgnine is annoyingly over-the-top, as if he were trying to cut in on every shot, and Lee van Cleef is reduced to largely scowling behind a desk. Only Kurt Russell gets the screen time he deserves, filling the empty streets of New York with his one-eyed swagger and growling whispers.
There are a number of enjoyable moments in Escape from New York which make it at least partially memorable. The set-pieces involving the cars, both on the bridge and breaking through the barricade, are well-choreographed and have good sound design, so that every explosion and crunch of metal is appropriately amplified. Isaac Hayes' entrance will raise a chuckle, as he drives through the wreckage of New York in a limo with chandeliers mounted on the bonnet (eat your heart out, Pimp My Ride!). Some of the humorous exchanges do work well, such as Hayes taunting Donald Pleasance with a gun and then the latter getting his revenge at the end. And the final scene, where the crucial tape has been replaced, is quite funny.
But in all, Escape from New York is little more than an enjoyable disappointment. It's a perfectly functional, efficiently made sci-fi actioner, but is nothing like as witty or subversive or thrilling as you would expect from John Carpenter. Like Mad Max 3 a few years later, there are individual scenes that work well but these are counterpointed by longer, more underwhelming sections. Carpenter completists will enjoy it, but everyone else should probably look elsewhere.