Escape from New York (1981)
Release Date: July 10th, 1981 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Carpenter Actors: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Season Hubley, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau
ften considered the greatest B-movie ever made, “Escape from New York” introduces audiences to the desolate, dystopian world of action demigod and all-around badass Snake Plissken. Now a highly regarded cult picture (and considered required viewing as preparation for the actors in Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse”), “Escape from New York” is not nearly as exploitive and over-the-top as it is pure fun. Garnished with monstrous obstacles, high-voltage car chases, nonstop gunplay, witty quips, and plenty of hand-to-hand combat, this is a substandard-by-design, low-budget, accidental sci-fi epic that is too good to pass up.
Recently captured notorious criminal and ex-special forces agent Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given one last chance at freedom (a full pardon for past transgressions) if he accepts the crooked police captain’s (Lee Van Cleef) offer to rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence). Air Force One was hijacked over the now barricaded island of Manhattan, which was converted to an enormous prison colony in 1997 due to rampant crime, with the valuable survivor winding up in the hands of the Duke (Isaac Hayes), a convict dictatorially governing the lawless remnants of the city. Snake has less than 24 hours to retrieve the target before explosive implants deceptively placed in Snake’s neck are set off – a rather grisly motivational scheme. Forcing his way through the filthy streets of the bloodied war zone that is New York, he must unwillingly battle gangs, henchmen, and the ruthless kingpin for both the government leader’s life and his own.
Russell immortalizes the character of Plissken, a warrior specially trained for rigorous military situations and coincidentally street-smart since birth, with gruff one-line ultimatums, a calm demeanor, and lone-wolf survival tactics. He dons the conspicuous eye patch, leather jacket, and military fatigues as if he showed up on set already in costume. It’s not that the screenplay is spectacular or that Russell’s acting is flawless – it’s just that he portrays the role as an uncaring, resolute, and macho terminator so incredibly well. Supplementing Russell’s routine are numerous recognizable character actors, including Ernest Borgnine as a kooky cab driver, Harry Dean Stanton as Brain the untrustworthy intelligence man, and Adrienne Barbeau as Brain’s main squeeze.
The look and feel of the film is schlock heaven, brimming with eccentric villains, futuristic weapons, and bullet-ridden locales. The streets are mostly deserted, with wreckage and debris scattered across the asphalt as if zombies had overtaken the town; broken down, decaying buildings are covered in shrapnel and graffiti and blood. And in this post-apocalyptic setting lies a hierarchy of thugs that Snake must dispose of, like something out of a James Bond adventure. From battling the crazies of the night and dueling the reigning makeshift-mace-fighting champion, to careening across a mine-filled bridge, no impediment is too big or deterring for the vigilante antihero to dauntlessly tackle.
Written, scored, and directed by cult classic aficionado John Carpenter, “Escape From New York” is at the top of the B-movie canon thanks to its freakish characters and bombastic action. It isn’t quite exploitive enough to fall entirely into the trashier grindhouse subcategory (into which it’s regularly placed), remaining surprisingly devoid of nudity, strong language, and notably graphic violence. Except for the amusingly ever-present cleavage of Adrienne Barbeau, the film is shockingly tasteful, never taking the general weirdness and rambunctious violence to any uncomfortable extremes. Pulsing with Carpenter’s familiar synthesized soundtrack and signature gonzo escapades (here tinged with the cynicism of Watergate and “Death Wish”), this unexpected commercial hit went on to spawn comic books, a board game, toys, a theatrical sequel, and quite the fan following.
– Mike Massie