Escape From New York Review
By Jeremiah Kipp
The idea of Manhattan being transformed into a maximum security prison isn't much of a stretch. Many New Yorkers already feel as though they're in jail every day, surrounded by monolithic skyscraper walls. John Carpenter imaginatively stretched that premise in his cult classic, Escape from New York. In his alternate version of 1997, the Big Apple is a cityscape jail. The rules are simple. Once the inmates are shipped in, they don't get out. The bridges are mined. The waterways are watched over by sweeping helicopters. The police force, like an army, is encamped on Liberty Island and the outer boroughs.
That's exciting enough, but Carpenter also calculates in a ticking time bomb narrative device. Air Force One is hijacked by some socialist radicals who crash-land the plane into the heart of "this inhuman dungeon of [an] imperialist prison." The President (Donald Pleasence) manages to escape in a safety pod, only to be captured by none other than the leader of a ferocious band of gypsies who control the island, the self-proclaimed Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).
Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (tough-as-nails Lee Van Cleef, nobody's fool) plans a rescue mission. He sends a new prisoner and former government soldier named Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to go in alone, get the President and a tape containing crucial information for a global summit conference, and bring 'em back to civilization. Russell, at the time desperate to break his Disney image, sports an eye-patch, three-day stubble, and a pretty good Clint Eastwood imitation. He comes off as a tough and resourceful hero, albeit an amoral one.
Snake goes into the prison city. One is simply amazed how much Carpenter, production designer Joe Alves, and cinematographer Dean Cundey were able to do on such a low budget. The city streets are alive with motley characters wandering around in ragtag clothes, gathered around fires in garbage cans or roaming around in cars with barred windows. There's an eerie blue lighting everywhere, illuminating the gray, battered shells of buildings.
Snake wanders around checking out the denizens who populate the impressive supporting cast of enemies and allies. Ernest Borgnine, in particular, is a comic treat as the last of the New York cabbies. Snake's journey takes him to places as diverse as a brutal wrestling match with spiked clubs in Madison Square Garden and a frenetic car chase along the Manhattan Bridge, spotted with landmines.
One of Snake's anti-authority lines still feels prescient today: "I don't give a fuck about your war... or your president." But Escape from New York is mostly pulp action escapist entertainment, straight from the pages of good comic books. It's something Edgar Rice Burroughs would have been proud to have his name attached to. The stakes are high, the clock is ticking, and Snake Plissken is our man to save the world from global annihilation. Ah, the spoils of war....
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 10th July 1981
Box Office Worldwide: $50M
Distributed by: MGM Home Entertainment
Production compaines: AVCO Embassy Pictures, Goldcrest Films International, International Film Investors, City Film
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Fresh: 40 Rotten: 8
Cast & Crew
Starring: Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, Lee Van Cleef as Police Commissioner Bob Hauk, Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, Donald Pleasence as President of the United States, Isaac Hayes as The Duke of New York, Harry Dean Stanton as Harold 'Brain' Helman, Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, Tom Atkins as Rehme, Frank Doubleday as Romero, John Strobel as Cronenberg, Season Hubley as Girl in Chock Full O'Nuts, Charles Cyphers as Secretary of State, John Cothran, Jr. as Gypsy #1