Escape from New York (1981) directed by John Carpenter
What’s it about?
This film assumes that America’s crime rate spiralled by 400% by 1988. The government decided to respond to the problem by turning the entirety of Manhattan Island into a high-security prison. The inmates are left to fend for themselves within its walls and there are only two rules - no one gets in, and no one gets out. Fast forward to 1997, and Air Force One is hijacked near New York airspace by a group of Communist sympathisers called “The Nationalist Liberation Front Of America” on its way to a crucial nuclear summit meeting with the US’s great foes Russia and China. The President (Donald Pleasance) ejects in his escape pod and lands in Manhattan.
Security chief Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) realises the stakes and goes in with an armed team to retrieve the President. However, while he locates the pod, the President himself is nowhere to be found. Moreover, when he goes in with a rescue team he runs into a gang member who claims to be holding their great leader hostage. The later tells them to leave the island within 30 seconds or he dies.
Hauk decides to persuade “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell) - a heavily decorated war hero who turned to a life of crime - to infiltrate the prison in a glider called The Gulfire. He presents him with a bargain: if he retrieves the President within 22 hours then he will be pardoned of his crimes and allowed to walk free; if not then a pair of explosive capsules placed in his neck will go off, killing him instantly. Snake, while angered by such a proposition, has no choice but to go along with it.
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Why is it significant?
Escape From New York was a significant film for cult director John Carpenter since it represented an intermediate step between the low budgets of his earlier independent productions such as Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween and the large Hollywood studio budgets of his 1980s major studio movies such as The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China. With a production cost of around $7 million, Escape From New York retained the edgy economy of his early films but combined it with larger-scale scenes and elaborate effects. Surprisingly, one of the film’s three financial backers was the British production company Goldcrest Films International who went on to score a huge critical and commercial success with the biopic Gandhi (1982).
Despite the budgetary upgrade over Carpenter’s previous films, however, cordoning off New York City and turning it into the wreckage-strewn dystopia we see on screen would have proven prohibitively expensive. As a result, most of the street scenes were actually shot East St. Louis, much of which lay derelict due to a heavily blighted economy and a huge urban fire in 1976. The only scenes which were actually filmed in New York were two brief establishing shots of Manhattan Island and The Statue of Liberty.
It was a decent-sized hit, taking over $25 million at the U.S. box office. It has remained a popular film in its various home viewing formats and spawned a rather less successful sequel, Escape from L.A.
How does it hold up?
In many ways Escape From New York can be seen as a spiritual sequel to Walter Hill’s 1979 hit The Warriors. Like that film, it’s a futuristic action fantasy set in a dystopian night-time New York where the law of the jungle prevails. Stylistically, too, it shares a lot of similarities: the cinematic language of comic books is present in its shot framings (where outlines take precedence over detail), in the overblown approach to violence and in the succinct dialogue spouted by characters which would fit speech bubbles like a glove.
At the same time, the distinctive languages of film noir (with the hard-boiled attitude and heavy use of shadows) and of westerns (Russell’s Clint Eastwood-like performance, the presence of genre stalwarts Van Cleef and Borgnine, the utterance of “goddamn redskins” when our heroes are ambushed near the end) stylistically permeate the production. There is also a heavy dosage of Carpenter’s own synth work lending its own distinctively icy vibe to the proceedings.
An atmosphere piece
At the end of the day Escape From New York is more about its own atmosphere than anything else. It’s a ravaged world of wreckage, darting shadows, gruesome brutalities and larger-than-life characters. The largest of the lot is, of course, Plissken - a man established as a legend in his own lifetime (literally: everyone he meets tells him “I thought you were dead”), and played with a gruff “take no shit” relish by Kurt Russell. There’s the main villain named “The Duke”, who is brought to life with a twitchily restrained menace by Isaac Hayes. There’s Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, whose hangdog figure seems to naturally bring out his weasely, ambivalent persona. The most amusing performance comes from Donald Pleasance’s President - a man who should be a rock of stability but ironically seems to be teetering on the edge more than anyone else here.
Ironically, the film isn’t quite as successful in the sci-fi and action departments. The 1997 setting here was informed by the state of the US in 1981 when the Cold War was in full swing, wireframe computer graphics were considered state-of-the-art and New York was blighted by a sky-high crime rate. By the real 1997 the Soviet Union had dissolved, Rudy Giuliani had instigated a process of cleaning up The Big Apple and wireframe graphics were considered long out-of-date. For an action movie, there is surprisingly little action for the most part, though things do pick up a bit in the last half hour with a nightmarish twist on a boxing match involving baseball bats with nails driven through them, followed by a frantic race across a heavily mined bridge. Carpenter’s later Big Trouble In Little China nailed the action-adventure genre with a considerably greater surety.
Even so, it still stands up as an amusing and stylish effort from the director, thus largely warranting its cult classic status.
Runtime: 99 mins
Dir: John Carpenter
Script: John Carpenter, Nick Castle
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Season Hubley, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Atkins