Escape from New York
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau
Escape from New York is the first of three 1980s collaborations between Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, the former using the goodwill accrued in this movie to successfully transition from Disney child star to iconic antihero. Escape from New York‘s grimy atmosphere, combined with its slick technology, heavily influenced the cyberpunk genre, with Blade Runner and Neuromancer both taking cues from this movie. Escape from New York currently holds an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 77/100 on Metacritic, and a 7.1/10 on IMDb.
I did an entire month on Kurt Russell last summer, and I was originally going to include this movie, but a Facebook group that I follow requested that I watch all versions of The Thing–so I shelved this one for another day.
Escape from New York gets reviewed now because its protagonist says two qualifying words…
Crime has gotten out of control in 1980s America. As a result, the president orders Manhattan walled off so that it can become a maximum security prison. The only rule–once you go in, you don’t go out.
In 1997, Snake Plissken, a now-disgraced war hero whom everyone believes is dead, gets caught robbing the federal reserve. As such, he’s brought to the entrance of the prison, then abruptly shuffled into the warden’s office. The warden offers Plissken a deal: serve his sentence or, within 24 hours, rescue the president whose plane crashed inside Manhattan. Since he’s going in one way or another, Snake figures a full pardon couldn’t hurt.
He immediately regrets that decision, however, when a sub-dermal explosive device gets implanted into his jugular. Now, perpetual loner Snake will have to learn how to make friends and influence people before he loses his head–either to the bomb or to the inmates!
A review published at the time of the movie’s release said that Escape from New York “is solid summer entertainment of unusually high caliber. By not pretending to be more than it is, but by also not settling for any less than it could be, Escape becomes an exciting, fast-moving drama…” This summation covers most of what I wanted to say, and, likely, more concisely than I would’ve said it.
My only problem with the movie is its puddle-deep characterization. Snake is supposed to be gruff, cool, and resilient–unapproachable yet in touch with the common man. He’s the dashing rogue cliche, only he’s got an eyepatch. Conversely, the main villain, The Duke, is a vaguely menacing crime lord who glowers from behind his armored Oldsmobile. We never see his motivations or how his mind works.
Astoundingly, Escape from New York minimizes this problem by excelling in other areas: Russell fully commits with his embodiment of Snake, Hayes wears his costuming with gleaming style, and Carpenter keeps the story engine burning with a literal ticking clock. The bizarre world is fully realized, and colorful side characters (Cabbie, Romero, and Brain) keep the audience interested.
The lack of character depth is truly a shame because the theme and purpose of Escape from New York give this dystopian nightmare true staying power. Carpenter wrote the script in response to Nixon’s Watergate scandal, the failure of Vietnam, and the racist War on Drugs. Escape from New York is dripping with disdain for those who arrogantly flaunt their power at the common man. If Snake, the Duke, or even Mr. President had been more fleshed out, their conflicts would’ve made the themes resonate more intensely with viewers.
As such, Escape from New York is a solid action flick… and, unfortunately, nothing more.
Yes, which adds another layer of frustration to my above criticism. Viewers today will appreciate the weird-yet-meticulously crafted world, but they’ll be drawn into the narrative because of the important issues upon which Escape from New York touches. Prisoner rights, executive-branch overreach, failed crime policies: these problems still antagonize America today.
Were the major characters more developed and their arcs more intentionally attuned to the film’s themes, critics and audiences alike would consider Escape from New York a cut above other ’80s sci-fi, regardless of that decade’s already storied genre entries. As it stands, I hear Escape from New York cautiously whispered in cinephile circles as a guilty pleasure.
I think that assessment, however, is a bridge too far. While I wish the movie was more, I enjoyed it guilt-free–and I imagine you will too.
There’s a disturbing amount of World-Trade-Center imagery in this movie, including a plane crashing near the landmark and a stealth plane landing atop the Twin Towers as well. I found it mildly spooky, but my brother, watching Escape from New York with me, found the scenes off-putting.
There’s also a scene with a Native-American gang chucking tomahawks at their rivals, in which ethnic slurs are used. The dialogue seems to be trying to make some kind of point about racism, but the whole thing comes off as clumsy at best.