Escape From New York (1981)

Escape From New York Poster

Release Date: July 10, 1981

Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes

Directed by John Carpenter; Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is a film that I’ve been looking forward to revisiting for awhile now.  It’s an old favorite of mine that I have vivid memories of watching on cable back in the 80’s, sometimes followed by a screening of The Warriors.

The film takes place in 1997, nine years after the entire island of Manhattan had been walled off and turned into a maximum security prison.  Prisoners are only given life sentences, but are offered the option of immediate death and cremation prior to departure.  Decorated war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has been sentenced to life in New York for robbing a federal reserve.  As Plissken waits for the shuttle to Manhattan, prison warden Hauk (played by Lee van Cleef) receives a distress signal from a hijacked Air Force One.  The President (played by Donald Pleasence) is ejected in an escape pod as Air Force One crashes into downtown Manhattan.  Hauk scrambles a rescue team, but by the time they find the abandoned escape pod, the President has been taken hostage by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the island’s leader.  They’re given 30 seconds to leave the island or the president will be killed.

Back at prison headquarters, Hauk offers Plissken a deal: bring the president back alive and he’ll be granted a full pardon, but equally important is the cassette in the President’s possession containing information on cold fusion.  The President must be returned in time for the Hartford Summit with China and Russia in order to share the formula for cold fusion in a show of good faith for world peace.  Plissken agrees, but any thought he had of using it as an opportunity to escape is quickly diffused when the warden implants two explosives in his neck that are timed to detonate in 23 hours unless Plissken succeeds in his mission.

Plissken lands a glider on the top of the World Trade Center and avoids rogue packs of prisoners as he makes his way through downtown Manhattan guided by a tracking device linked to the President.  The beacon leads him to the basement of an old theater (complete with a musical act, proving the lights never never will go out on Broadway even if it becomes part of a maximum security prison) but quickly finds out he’s been on the wrong trail and the President is now prisoner of The Duke.  An old cab driver named Cabbie (played by Ernest Borgnine) recognizes Plissken and offers to take him to The Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who can in turn lead Plissken to the Duke.  Plissken and the Brain have a history that Plissken hasn’t forgiven or forgotten, but have to work together to get the President out of New York.

Escape From New York is almost exactly how I remembered it when I watched in the 80’s.  Kurt Russell is the star of the film as Snake Plissken, but the supporting cast of Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau and led by the amazing Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) is top notch.  The special effects, particularly the models, miniatures and matte paintings that recreated Manhattan, weren’t as dated as I thought they would look 33 years later.  Ironically the film was shot primarily on location in East St. Louis, Missouri (the true New York locations were Liberty Island and New York Harbor), but cinematographer Dean Cundey and production designer Joe Alves did a great job turning it into the decaying, deadly Manhattan in Carpenter’s dystopian representation of 1997 New York.

Most films I revisit after 30 odd years tend to feel slower paced the second time around, but from the moment Snake lands in Manhattan and the clock winds down, the film plays out at a fast, action packed pace though sometimes at the expense of the characters.  Carpenter takes the time at the beginning of the film to present Snake’s qualifications for the mission, but neglects to reveal his motives for committing the crime that got him a life sentence to New York.  I also thought the script tended to take the easy way out on a couple of occasions by having several characters in the film, prisoners with very little in terms of electricity and communication with the outside world, instantly recognize Snake Plissken as if he was a celebrity.  Unfortunately there are moments when the script only gives the bare minimum of character information when slowing down the pace to answer these questions would have added that one additional layer the story needs.

Overall Escape From New York is a great film that still holds up.  It may not have the visual effects of Blade Runner, but the premise, cast and production design make for a great ride.  It’s been at least 25 year since I’ve seen Escape From New York and revisiting this film didn’t disappoint.

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