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.