Escape from New York

Escape from New York ★★

Well that was a bummer. All the ingredients are here for a can’t-miss cult classic: an inspired setting and goofy high concept; a bevy of character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine, and Donald Pleasance; Kurt Russell in an eyepatch. Something had to go really wrong for none of that to hold my interest, yet here I am, shocked at how bored I was. With such a ridiculous premise and hero, who decided grim and humorless was the right approach? I’ll burn all my bridges up front and say that Kurt Russell is kind of terrible in this, or at least he can’t overcome the character’s complete lack of personality. Snake Plissken is neither charismatic nor funny, just a bland action figure growling under his breath (he’s doing Eastwood here instead of Wayne). He and the film are just no fun, going through the beats without any sense of excitement or inspiration.

After the rather laborious set-up, I was really banking on some interesting locations and characters emerging from the rubble of former Manhattan. But the closest we ever get is a glimpse of prisoners in drag performing in a dilapidated theater; sadly, a glimpse is all we get, and even the wrestling death match is surprisingly drab and tedious. Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, and Isaac Hayes’ characters are practically non-entities, dutifully running around and saying their lines without ever landing on a truly memorable moment. Their fates just as perfunctory and underwhelming, evidence of an alarming lack of imagination on the part of screenwriters Carpenter and Nick Castle. (I’m tempted to shift the blame onto Castle, whose credits are practically non-existent save for the god-awful Hook. But Carpenter should’ve known better.)

The final stinger might have had some bite, if only I wasn’t kind of begging for the film to end at that point. I don’t know, I know most people seem to enjoy this and I really wish I was among them. The best I can say is that Carpenter still has a way with striking visuals, though between this and his later work (I’ll even throw The Thing in there), I wonder if increased resources don’t diminish his strengths. I’ll be revisiting Escape from L.A. at some point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I find its overt silliness far more engaging than this film’s colorless monotony. Even without a timebomb injected in my neck, nobody was more eager to escape from this New York than I was.

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