In my life, I was fortunate to have visited the City of New York not once but twice. The first in 1997 and the last in 2011. Already the city was highly modernized and Times Square was often filled with people enjoying the place without worrying about criminals pouncing on them.
What I never got to discover was New York City during its dark, old days when it had a lot more crime and a depressing social atmosphere as seen through the history books of the city. This alone makes watching John Carpenter’s 1981 flick Escape from New York a more interesting experience for me personally. Anyway, here is my review of Escape From New York.
The movie begins with information that in the then-future of 1988, crime in America skyrocketed by 400% which compelled the Federal Government to convert Manhattan of New York into a maximum-security prison zone which is eventually surrounded by very high walls (complete with armed guards), mines on the routes out of Manhattan and armed security personnel patrolling the water (by helicopter). Those who were sentenced to imprisonment at Manhattan really have no hope escaping.
In the then-future of 1997, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is captured by the authorities for a Federal Reserve robbery attempt and eventually he gets offered a deal: if he rescues the captured President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) in New York and recovers a sensitive audio tape, a presidential pardon will be arranged for him. Before going to New York, Snake is injected with micro explosives which will blow up in less than 24 hours and they can only be neutralized if he succeeds with his mission. Snake flies into New York but his mission starts roughly.
That’s enough with the plot. Now I’ll talk about the quality of the film.
For a movie with a low budget of $6 million, Escape from New York looks pretty grand in certain parts specifically with the physical presentation of the streets of the city looking very deserted (note: location filming took place at the isolated and decayed sections of East St. Louis, IL), the on-location shooting at Liberty Island and the gladiator fight at the St. Louis Union Station’s grand hall. Furthermore, the filmmakers managed to stretch whatever Dollars they had to making the New York prisoners looking undesirable and dangerous.
The visual effects, believe it or not, were the result of the film crew having very talented specialists who made the photo-realistic shots. The matte paintings looked very convincing and so did the wire-frame animation sequence which was done with the use black light and special tape (which are visually visible as lighted wire frames). Not to be outdone is the use of miniatures to emphasize New York City with the flying shots. Definitely no computer-generated images here!
In terms of storytelling, the film remains engaging to watch and along the way you do get to feel and relate with Snake Plissken who does not really care about the affairs of the President nor the Federal Government. He is one of those individuals who only wants to be left alone although his crime of robbery shows his desperation. Snake by the way reflects the anti-authoritarian views of director John Carpenter who in turn wrote this movie’s script after the Watergate Scandal happened.
On face value, Escape from New York looks like an action film but if you’re expecting mind-blowing stuff, intense explosions and lots of hard action, you will be disappointed. The best way to look at this movie is that its presentation of action is moderate. There is the firing of guns but don’t expect a war. There is some hard action here and there, but don’t expect extensive choreographed hand-to-hand fight sequences. What defines the action big time, however, is Snake’s “gladiatorial” battle with the big guy who overdid himself and gave Kurt Russell a truly hard time on shooting the action scenes. Snake’s struggle in the ring was truly Russell’s hard struggle. He was not acting at all during those action scenes.
Ironically, the lack of action and explosions did result the incidental acts of the many extras hired to play New York’s prisoners which really made the film’s concept of a metropolitan prison convincing. Snake’s escape from a run-down building being chased by many bad guys was fun to watch. The scene in which the good guys rode a vehicle only to be hit by debris thrown by many bad guys was intense.
With regards to performance, Kurt Russell’s Snake is truly iconic. He captures the character’s tough guy mentality and the good and honorable guy deep in the character’s heart. Donald Pleasence as the US President was pretty engaging even though he did not have the same amount of screen time as Russell. Pleasence is a very skilled actor and his handling of showing the US President as a scared and desperate person in captivity and as a cold-hearted man with power in safety is very memorable.
The other players like Lee Van Cleef (the hard authority figure), Ernest Borgnine (clearly the comic relief), Isaac Hayes (The Duke), Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Atkins all had nice performances and they contributed well into the film’s quality.
With regards to weak spots, I could only wish the opening explanation (that crime accelerated by 400%) was accompanied with staged or archived footage of city crime to emphasize society’s downfall and make the film’s concept of turning New York into a prison more convincing. Also there was the missed opportunity by the filmmakers to use archived news footage of New York City’s history of high crime and police corruption. Lastly the final conflict between Snake and the Duke lacked impact and was underwhelming.
Overall Escape from New York is not only one of John Carpenter’s best films…it is truly a Hollywood action-adventure classic with a very intriguing concept (New York City as a prison) that deserves your attention. Unlike Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Escape from New York is timeless and remains fun and relevant to watch. Just don’t expect to see bombastic action and stunts.
If you intend to watch the movie, I suggest buying the movie’s collector’s edition Blu-ray disc release while it is still available. Good luck finding a copy of it.
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Author’s Note: This article was originally published at my old Geeks and Villagers blog. What you read on this website was an updated and expanded version. In other words, this newest version you just read is the most definitive version.