Escape from New York

Escape from New York ★★★

John Carpenter was undergoing the strongest period of his career between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, with his inimitably low-budget filmmaking and stylish productions making a huge impact on genre films of this period. But when it came to characters, no other outside of Michael Myers from “Halloween” managed to strike quite as iconic of an impression as that of Snake Plissken in “Escape from New York.” In the distant future of 1997, crime has become so rampant that traditional prisons have become inadequate. Thus to solve the problem, the entirety of Manhattan has been quartered off and turned into a maximum security prison, where criminals are simply dumped in to fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, it is there that a group of insurrectionists have crashed the plane carrying the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) right before an important world peace summit, and where legendary ex-soldier/criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has now been coerced to go in to fetch him, with the added incentive of being injected with a toxin that will kill him in 24 hours should he fail to return in time with his objective. Using this simple premise, the ensuing movie showcases Carpenter's brand of filmmaking in both the best and worst ways, with the obviously small budget of the movie dictating much of what he could do with the setting itself.

The linchpin of the film is obviously Snake himself, with Russell turning in an iconic performance that mixes Bruce Lee, Robert Ginty and Clint Eastwood into an outstandingly cool package of an eyepatch-wearing, no-nonsense mercenary who goes in and gets shit done with such self-assuredness as to make his legendary status completely believable. Likewise, the surrounds of the decrepit New York (though the movie was actually largely filmed in St. Louis) gives the film another one of those inimitably atmospheric settings the director's work is so well known for, with the movie's straightforward action keeping things moving forward at a reasonably good pace to never drag.

However, this also does leave the film feeling at times somewhat overly threadbare, with many of the side characters not amounting to a whole lot in the end, though Ernest Borgnine as a funky cabbie, Lee Van Cleef as the imposing warden, Pleasence as a suitably snivelly President, Harry Dean Stanton as Snake's former associate, and Isaac Hayes as the big kingpin behind the President's kidnapping do turn in suitably solid performances. Still, though entertaining for sure, in the end the movie just feels a bit too insubstantial to remain particularly memorable, nor does it compensate with as much spectacle as you'd wish for the action extravaganza this could have been. Regardless, there's still much fun to be had here and there's worse ways to spend a hundred minutes with than following Snake around beating up baddies. Followed by Escape from L.A.