Escape from New York (1981)


We may now know Kurt Russell as an action hero - or often anti-hero -  largely from such movies as Big Trouble in Little China and Death Proof.  Before Escape from New York, however, Russell had worked on a number of Disney comedies and had starred in another John Carpenter film: Elvis, a television movie about the then-recently-deceased rock and roll singer.  The studios didn't really see Russell as a good fit for the role of Snake Plissken, although Carpenter and Russell sure did, and audiences had no problem with it.  Though Carpenter's highest budget film to date it was still quite a bit less than the average action blockbuster of the time, but Escape from New York continued the trend of Carpenter's movies turning a major profit.

By 1988 the crime rate in the United States has risen to such a level that the island of Manhattan, at the time one of the most crime-ridden parts of the U.S., is turned into a maximum security prison.  Bridges and waterways are mined and the whole area is monitored from Liberty Island.  In 1997 a member of a revolutionary group manages to gain control of Air Force One, crashing it into the prison. 

The President (Donald Pleasance) manages to escape, but is soon captured by the Duke (Isaac Hayes), a criminal warlord that has managed to gain control of a good portion of Manhattan.  In order to save the President Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), the prison's warden, enlists former special ops soldier Snake Plissken (Russell) to infiltrate Manhattan and bring the President out safely.  Snake himself is scheduled to transferred to the island due to a robbery of the Federal Reserve, and is promised a full pardon if he succeeds, where as implants will explode and kill him if he doesn't.

There is a novelization of Escape from New York which fleshes out more details about the world it takes place in.  The United States is at war with the Soviet Union and a good portion of the population of the U.S. has been affected by nerve gas.  That might be interesting for a novel but, like many of his movies, John Carpenter cuts all the fat away, even dispensing with showing us the robbery that gets Plissken captured after test audiences thought it didn't work with the rest of the film.  Instead, we are introduced to Snake as he arrives, with a number of his achievements read by Hauk, and he is sent on his way.  By all evidence those running the prison have little idea of conditions inside, other than the subways and underground tunnels are filled with the Crazies, who appear to be cannibalistic. 

That means there is no exposition dump when Snake arrives.  We find out about things like he does, from the different gangs that control the island to the Duke's little kingdom and a man named Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) that, along with his consort Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), has found ways to refine gas and provide limited electrical power to the part of the island under Duke's control.  He also befriends Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), a taxi driver who remained on the island despite its conversion to a prison, hinting that not everyone vacated as ordered. 

Little of the movie was actually filmed in New York, save the scenes on Liberty Island and another of a sunrise over the city.  Although some sets were used, the majority of the movie was filmed in St. Louis, Missouri and East St. Louis, Illinois.  Both cities, but especially the latter, provided the rundown and burnt out look Carpenter was going for, while tons more trash and junk was hauled in to use.  It works, largely since the only major landmark other than the Statue of Liberty (that, despite the poster, does not have its head sitting in the middle of a street) that is prominent is the World Trade Center, and it is presented in miniature.  At ground level many of the buildings of similar architecture were able to double for the Big Apple.  

The first time I saw the movie (and it was before 1997) I was disappointed that it wasn't more of a straight action film.  It took seeing many other John Carpenter films before realizing what a complete package his best stuff is, from the music down to the cinematography.  While he has a particular political bent, and his thoughts about the Cold War subtly permeate Escape from New York, it doesn't overwhelm the movie, nor does Russell try to be Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson, who were the more comparable genre stars at the time.  Escape from New York was partially inspired by Death Wish, but Carpenter did not want to glorify the violence, rather provide a character that was both as cool as can be but that was also scarred and isolated by the life he had lived.  Russell was the best choice, and one gets the feeling that Snake is professional when it comes to getting the job done, but that each time he has to a little bit of his humanity is stripped away and he becomes the character others think he is.  The ending shows that at least a little bit of his true self still exists after all that time. 

Despite the fact that a large portion of the movie is dated simply by history, it still works well on many levels and it has aged much better than its sequel, Escape from L.A.  Carpenter couldn't help going full on satirical, while practically remaking this film, and the effects in the follow-up are notoriously awful.  As with many ambitious films with a similar budget Escape from New York doesn't rely so much on special effects as it does its menacing, dreamlike atmosphere.  Still, what is here is surprisingly well done, since a lot of it involves miniatures with tape on them to simulate a 3-D computer scan of Manhattan, one that computers were capable of in 1981 but that was beyond the budget of the film.  

The thing to remember about Escape from New York is that it's not an over-the-top campy action film like The Running Man, but a largely straight-faced science fiction film with some wry satire and action elements worked into it.  It also would not have worked with anyone else outside of Russell and Carpenter working together, as both of them were on the same page when it came to the type of movie they wanted to make.  While it may not be as thrilling for those brought up to think that all '80s action movies were Stallone and Schwarzenegger, it also shows, like his previous Assault on Precinct 13, that they do not necessarily have to be mere popcorn flicks, either. 

Escape from New York (1981)
Time: 99 minutes
Starring: Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasance, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes
Director: John Carpenter


 

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