John Carpenter crafts out an excellent landscape for a futuristic action movie in Escape From New York and populates it with a whole host of colorful, entertaining and menacing characters that make this movie a fun ride from start to finish.
Set in 1997 (the movie was released in 1981) Manhattan is a maximum security prison surrounded by a 50 foot wall and all the inmates are serving a life sentence, forcing them to live in a world they make for themselves.
The President of America crash-lands in New York when Air Force One is taken over by terrorists while he is on his way to a peace summit with the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China. The leader of the inmates, the Duke of New York, captures the President prisoner and plans to use him in order for himself and the rest of the population to be set free.
Meanwhile, a former war hero turned criminal, Snake Plissken has been arrested while trying to rob the Federal Reserve in Denver, Colorado and has been sentenced to life in New York. New York Warden Bob Hauk offers Plissken a deal – In return for rescuing the President within 24 hours he will issue Snake with a full pardon for the crimes he has committed. Snake reluctantly agrees, but Hauk injects him with two micro capsules that will explode in his neck if Snake does not return with the president.
What really makes this movie for me is the grim visualization of the future, particularly New York. This movie looks and feels like an apocalyptic nightmare, New York is decayed and desolate. This grunged-up city is a character in itself and really brings this movie to life. The model work done of the city is fantastic and still looks great today. The film is dark from start to finish which is a great reflection of the plot.
John Carpenter managed to craft a perfect dystopian world for the action to take place in. Carpenter wrote the story with Nick Castle and sends us a powerful message that is just as relevant today as it was when the movie was first released in 1981. John Carpenter managed to create a fantastic vision that has stood the test of time. The character of Snake Plissken is a true anti-hero, he has been arrested for a robbery and has no remorse, he has no respect for the law and only agree’s to rescue the president because his own life is on the line, yet the audience is still rooting for the character 100%.
Snake Plissken is played by Kurt Russell, who has worked with Carpenter on many projects. Russell really takes this character to another level and makes it his own. His nonchalant mannerisms and reactions, his attitude to authority and his physicality are all emphasized by Russell’s performance. Snake is a man who’s actions speak louder than words and although he was not the first lone anti-hero (Mad Max, Man With No Name) he is one of the best. He simply doesn’t care!
As well as Snake, there are a whole host of other colorful and interesting characters making up this crazy world. Isaac Hayes plays the Duke of New York. Hayes embodies the Duke and really seems to relish playing him, the only crime he committed was not getting enough screen time. Cabbie, played by Ernest Borgnine, is fun even for some slight comic relief in his over-the-top performance of a New York cab driver. Lee Van Cleef is Bob Hauk, the head of New York penitentiary. Another dark and brooding character, maybe the most closely related to Snake, both having a military background and being war heroes, and the dialogue between the two characters is arguably some of the best in the whole movie. Veteran Donald Pleasance plays the president in a very stellar performance, he plays a very good president. I love his final scenes in this movie at the prison wall.
Two of my favorite characters are Brain played by Harry Dean Stanton and Maggie played by Adrienne Barbeau. Brain and Snake have history and it really helps to give depth to the world. Only a few muttered lines about a previous incident is enough to really flesh out the history of the characters. Maggie, the Brain’s squeeze is a very strong character. She seems to be headstrong and determined but devoted to Brain. I thought her character had a great story arc and a satisfying conclusion.
I mention needs to be given to the music in the movie. Carpenter composes (or co-composes) the music for most of his movies himself which I think tells you a lot about the passion this guy has for the movies he makes. You can generally tell if a movie has been done by Carpenter simply by the standard and quality of the soundtrack. Escape From New York is no exception. Carpenter has a distinctive synthesizer sound which is very fitting of this film. His distinctive sound definitely helps to set this film apart.
Overall I think this movie is a fantastic piece of escapist cinema. It delivers a group of compelling characters that are put into an impossible situation. I love the darkness and the bleak outlook that this movie presents. Anyone with any interest in science fiction, post-apocalyptic or action/adventure movies seriously need to watch this if you haven’t already done so. An excellent film which still holds up and is as relevant today as it was in 1981.