Escape from New York (1981) Reviews
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With its restrained direction and deliberate pacing, 1981's Escape from New York may be a tough sell to contemporary viewers accustomed to fast-moving, exciting action flicks. However, it's hard to express just how badass and enthrallingly atmospheric this movie truly is, which is a credit to John Carpenter's abilities as a cinematic craftsman. Added to this, Escape from New York is built on a solid foundation of intelligence and innovation, with the screenplay by Carpenter and Nick Castle (which was initially penned in 1974) containing social commentary and reflecting society's anxieties of the period. It's one of Carpenter's timeless gems - while not on the same level as Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween or The Thing, it deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
In 1988, a third world war breaks out and crime rates rise 400%, leading the American government to transform the island of Manhattan into an enormous federal prison. Prisoners are dropped in, but they are never returned to the outside world. There are no guards or rules; the city is ruled by its population of violent criminals, who have developed their own depraved society. In 1997, a group of radical socialists hijack Air Force One, crashing it into New York City in the hope of killing the conservative President of the United States (Donald Pleasence). The President survives by ejecting in the escape pod, but lands in the middle of Manhattan at the mercy of psychotic criminals. Low on options, police commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) chooses to send Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) in to save the President. A one-eyed special ops veteran, Snake is on death row after a failed bank heist, but he's the best hope they have. Although reluctant to accept the assignment, Snake is forced to cooperate, as explosive charges are planted in his bloodstream and will only be removed when he returns with the President. With a timeframe of less than 24 hours, the very pissed off Snake is sent into New York, where he navigates the dark streets and deals with the variety of crazies inhabiting the broken city.
As to be expected from a John Carpenter movie, Escape from New York is classic sci-fi, and one of the most creative action movies of the '80s. It's high-concept action, with Carpenter supporting the violence and gunplay with a genuinely ingenious premise. It's actually a well-structured movie as well, taking its time to establish both this dystopian world and the plot before Plissken is thrown into the streets of Manhattan. Subsequently, Carpenter provides an engrossing walking tour through the ruined streets, and though there are not a lot of big set-pieces, the pacing is methodical and sure-handed, making for gripping viewing. On top of endowing Escape from New York with a dark dystopian vibe, Carpenter also finds time for political commentary, giving the production a welcome sense of intelligence. The script is cynical about Reagan-era world leaders, and Plissken openly questions just how free the American people truly are.
Making the most of the rather small $7 million budget, Carpenter portrays a gritty post-apocalyptic vision of New York that's hellish and eerie, where you feel that some crazed lunatic might pop out of any manhole. The majority of the flick was not actually shot in NYC, but rather in a burnt-out section of downtown St. Louis, giving Carpenter and director of photography Dean Cundey (who also shot Halloween) plenty of nightmarish urban terrain to fill the widescreen frame. Escape from New York is a dark movie bathed in shadows, and a lot of the atmosphere is derived from the lack of polish in the visuals. To create the special effects, Carpenter enlisted the help of Roger Corman's production company, who specialise in cheap exploitation films and knew how to create effective illusions on a dime. The special effects are very good considering the limitations. Future filmmaking wunderkind James Cameron actually worked on this production, contributing to the matte paintings and miniatures. But it's perhaps the score by Carpenter himself which constitutes the definitive touch. It's an insanely catchy synthesiser score, adding to the film's texture and generating tension. Escape from New York is often criticised for being comparatively low on action, and it might've been nice to see Plissken engaged in more shootouts since he's such a fun character, but it's not too big of a deal.
Without a doubt, Snake Plissken is one of the greatest antiheroes of the 20th century. Mixing equal parts Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, and with an arsenal of witty one-liners, Plissken is one hell of a character, and everything about Kurt Russell as Plissken is extremely cool. Formerly a child actor and a Disney movie nice guy, Russell unleashed his inner badass here, a move which defined his career. And on top of being badass, Russell also displays smarts and a nice sense of humour. It was a tricky role, and Russell hits it out of the park. In the supporting cast, Ernest Borgnine is the most notable, putting in a colourful performance as a New York cabby, while Isaac Hayes is sublimely nasty and tough as the Duke. Also in the cast is Lee Van Cleef, who previously starred in the iconic Clint Eastwood western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Cleef is predictably good here, while Pleasence is amiable enough as the President.
By modern standards, Escape from New York is slow, with the occasional action beats surrounded by deliberately-paced scenes of Plissken touring a derelict NYC. And nobody will ever mistake this for a contemporary CGI-laden blockbuster. Nevertheless, Escape from New York is a winner, because every single cent of its budget is visible on-screen and the movie was manufactured with genuine heart. There's something enthralling about watching an '80s film for which a resourceful filmmaker was able to create a sci-fi dystopia on a tiny budget, using sheer innovation to achieve his vision. The film works on multiple levels: it's both a fascinating action-adventure and a creative political commentary which captures the era's anxieties, not to mention it introduces one hell of an antihero. It may be a B-movie at heart, but Escape from New York is a B-movie with style, brains and attitude, thus it's not surprising that it's such an esteemed cult classic.
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If the directing goes wrong, I think the writing goes right. It's full of surprises and believable dilemmas for Snake to face. The basic setting also got me thinking; say that Manhattan would really be turned into a giant prison. How the hell would this be explained to the people in it? Sure, it's a setting many years in the future (the futuristic world of 1997!), but how could any goverment ever pursue all the people in a friggin' densely populated island just leave with no problems? "Sorry folks, we're going to turn this place into a prison, so ya'll best leave". I just had some problems buying that, but honestly I won't hold it against the script at all, just a little weird nitpicking I had. As stated previously, I think the script was rather surprising. There's a delightful scene early on when Snake arrives on the island; he goes into a cafe to hide from crazy people running around outside, and meets a blonde woman. They start talking. Turns out she wants him to take her with him to the outside. At this point I was thinking "This chick'll be a tag-on guide or something for Snake, what a cliched plot decision". Then, all the sudden, CRAZY PEOPLE BURST OUT OF THE FLOOR AND RIP HER DOWN AND KILL HER! How awesome! Snake hardly even tries helping her out, instead just running the fuck out of there. The movie is filled with these little surprises that sometimes succesfully manage to break action-movie cliches into pieces and replace them with original writing decisions. Also, the ending surprised me by being a rather multilayered and ambiguous-ending. It's something that you might think about after seeing it, and it completely came out of the blue to me as I never expected it coming. However, I should say that all these little things would be of no use if Snake Plissken wouldn't be in this movie. He makes it all worthwhile. First of all, Kurt Russell's performance is very good. He knows what the character is like at heart and manages to act out like he has a true, deep understanding of the character; he feels like he has been Snake his entire life instead of just the section of it that we witness within the film. But what makes him an even better character is his personality. The writing of Plissken is ingenious. He's built to be a true hardass, who, based on the ending, does have a heart too despite the tough exterior. His personality, from Kurt's performance to every line of dialogue he says, works in favour of the film tremendously.
And that's why it's sad that all the other characters are just side characters. They're all there to support Snake's character on his quest. They have cardboard-personalities that never change, and the bad guy is really pretty darn unmenacing. With a cast like this I was really expecting all the secondary characters to be atleast interesting, instead I almost yawned every time a new one was introduced since I knew they'd just pop in, say their lines, then go away. It feels like a waste when you have an actor like Lee Van Cleef and all he does is be mean throughout the movie without ever being really all that interesting. From one thing to another, there's still a few things I need to call good. The special effects (models, CGI) and the set design is all very good for the low budget Escape had. Sure, you can tell the CGI is CGI, but atleast it isn't used to simulate actual real-life things, but instead only in computer monitors for example. The small-scale models and blue-screening is very well done, and at a few points it actually had me fooled to the extent that I thought they really shot footage of a small plane landing on the WTC. Then I remembered the budget and laughed it off. The prisoner-torn New York also looks great throughout; taking lots of things from older apocalypse-movies, the set designers created a realistically grim New York; you can still feel that it's NY, but you also go "something really bad has happened here". I think that's good. One thing that wasn't so good though on the production-stage is the props. This movie has some really ridicilous props throughout, seriously. From Snake's enormous silenced SMG to a huge red presidential ball safety capsule (or something) to a car with chandeliers as decorations(!) this film really made me laugh a lot with the prop design, and with the serious tone of the movie, it isn't a good thing.
In the end, this movie would've been a nice treat, had it been handed to a different director. Carpenter is not a master of action, and it shows. Also, even though I didn't mention it much, like in Carpenter's movies usually, the score is fantastic... to listen to on it's own. Unfortunately it doesn't really create that much excitement or intensity during the action scenes. And as an action movie, the lack of intensity or sense thereof, is a minus.
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the movie co-stars Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Adriene Barbeau, and Lee Van Cleef
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