Escape from New York (1981) – Directed by John Carpenter – Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Season Hubley, and Tom Atkins.
As a kid, I wasn’t a huge fan of John Carpenter movies but I’ve gained a real appreciation for Carpenter over the years because I think he makes movies the way I would have made movies if I was making movies in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Like Robert Rodriguez, Carpenter is a guy whose films are infused with more passion and concept than narrative brilliance.
Take a gander at the scene in ESCAPE when Snake Plissken (Russell) is brought in to see Commissioner Hauk (Van Cleef). Hauk is sitting behind his desk like he’s the guy in charge, and Snake is standing just inside the doorway in cuffs, waiting to find out what Hauk wants. Snake’s upper body is hidden in shadow. Why? Because it looks cool. That’s it. We’ve already seen Plissken’s face led into the prison in cuffs and seen him growl, so there’s absolutely nothing to gain from obscuring his face in this scene.
Except it looks cool.
I think this is one of the reasons why Rodriguez’s Grindhouse film (Planet Terror) is so much better than Tarantino’s half (Death Proof) – Tarantino’s love of the genre feels more analytical while Rodriguez’s feels more primal. It’s like Tarantino-
Yeah, I should probably save that for those reviews, eh?
When ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK inevitably gets remade 5 or 10 or 20 years from now, it’ll have a budget of $200 million, bigger explosions, and proper lighting, but I hope it’s not sanitized. ESCAPE feels very real because it feels like a live-in world, and it works because everyone commits to playing their part to the limit. Russell doggedly sneers, Van Cleef is doggedly always in charge, Ernest Borgnine is doggedly loopy, and Adrienne Barbeau is doggedly always about to fall out of her top.
Carpenter might not have massive budgets (was $6 million a lot in 1983?) but look at that cast he’s assembled: Russell, Van Cleef, Borgnine, Pleasence, Hayes, Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton … my friends and I always used to play this game back in high school where we were always casting our dream movie. You never overloaded it with stars because the goal was to show off how awesome you are. It was the highest praise one could hang on an actor when we’d say, “If I was making a movie, Judd Hirsch would have to be in it.”
That’s seemingly how Carpenter cast ESCAPE – everyone in it is awesome. (It’s like the exact opposite way of how James Cameron casts every one of his parts that’s not either in Aliens or named Michael Biehn.) None of these roles are particularly juicy but all of them are memorable.
The set-up of ESCAPE is stupid but set-ups don’t matter in these post-apocalyptic films. The island of Manhattan has been turned into a prison because World War III is going on and crime has jumped 400% and … yeah, turning Manhattan into a prison makes total sense. Well, it doesn’t, but ESCAPE FROM CLEVELAND doesn’t have the same ring.
Did you catch that World War III was going on? Well, the President (Pleasence) is in Air Force One and is, for some reason, flying close enough to New York that when the stewardess, who belongs to a left-wing terrorist organization called, um, the People’s Front of Judea or something, hijacks the plane (I’m gonna put the blame for that on the Secret Service more than Human Resources) and crashes the plane into a building, the President jumps into Air Force One’s large, orange egg of an escape pod to save himself and the magical cassette tape he carries. The Duke finds and captures the President, cuts off his finger as proof that he has him, and then demands freedom in exchange for the President’s life.
It’s not the deepest plan ever concocted but it’s about as good as you’re gonna get from a dude who puts ceiling light fixtures on the hood of his car.
The whole set-up, the whole World War III angle, the President being captured, the fact that they have the secrets of nuclear fusion on an honest-to-god cassette tape that looks like they got from an intern who had a mix of Foghat and Rainbow classics on the floor of his Camaro and could bare to part with it, is completely immaterial to the film. All that matters is Kurt Russell going into a post-apocalyptic looking New York to get something out and a bunch of crazy people are going to try and stop him.
The only idea that matters is that Manhattan is a prison, that no one (not even guards) is ever allowed inside, and that the prisoners are left to their own devices.
That idea is awesome.
Snake Plissken was arrested because he was trying to rob the Federal Reserve and that makes him something of a celebrity inside the prison. People keep saying, “I thought you were dead,” so at least all of these hardened criminals are still watching the news when they’re not turning New York into a big sh*thouse.
The President wears a monitor bracelet because the film needs to have a way to track him, so Snake tracks him into this abandoned theater where people are putting on some old-fashioned music hall singing from the early 1900s. Think about that for a second – we’ve got the worst of the worst criminals trapped inside this city prison and a bunch of them decide, “Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if we found some outfits from the 1930s and sign and dance?” Right. I think OZ did that exact episode.
Doesn’t matter if it’s logical, because it’s awesome.
Snakes finds the President’s monitor but it’s now on another dude’s wrist, and that sets the rest of the plot in motion – Snake looks for the President, makes an uneasy alliance with “the Brain,” an old acquaintance who left Snake to die but now gets to shag Adrienne Barbeau, and wars with the Duke. There are fights and explosions and betrayals.
Carpenter pulls it all off with aplomb in a tightly made 100 minutes. Everyone is just as good as you want them to be and as a result, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is a fun, action-packed ride.