Escape from New York

Escape from New York ★★★★

Campy, unapologetic, and totally lacking in pretense or nuance, John Carpenter's Escape from New York is the hyper-masculine, fiercely anti-political fever dream mashup of The Warriors and The Wizard of Oz (or more accurately, The Wiz,) that gushes with wild ideas, a stylish synth soundtrack, and a respectable production design given its obviously shoestring budget that cemented Kurt Russell as an early 80's manly man.

A little embarrassed that it took me this long to finally watch this classic entry in Carpenter's filmography, this little gem didn't disappoint though I was surprised by its tone and pacing. In terms of tone, this movie doesn't take itself too seriously and that's just fine by me. Its goofy premise seems a product of a man-boy's arrested development in that the entire island of Manhattan is now a maximum security prison in a USA crippled by a 400% increase in violent crime. When the plane carrying the President (Halloween's Donald Pleasence) crashes into downtown, ex-Spec Ops convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is reluctantly sent in to rescue the old fart.

What I loved about this premise was that the world of the story is so cynical and corrupted that none of the "powers that be" really want to save the President for the pure sake of saving the leader of the free world. They couldn’t care less about the man himself. He just has some important documents that he needs to deliver to a conference in Hartford, Connecticut within 24 hours, a delivery upon which "world peace" hangs delicately in the balance. If the President didn't have to be there at that time with those documents, you get the impression that police commissioner Hauk (a gruff and crusty Lee Van Cleef) and his assistant Rehme (the venerable Tom Atkins) wouldn't lift a finger for the guy. In keeping with this unabashed irreverence for "the Man" is Mr. Plissken, who when informed of the situation regarding the President delivers one of the best lines of the film:

President of what?

Snake is his own man and is entirely motivated by his own sense of self-preservation, self-seeking, and plain old ego. The only reason he takes the gig is due to the tiny explosives they implant in his neck that will explode his arteries should he stray away from his objective and not return from New York with his prize in hand. He doesn't care much for anyone he meets along the way and doesn't (spoiler alert) emerge a changed man at the end. Hell yeah!

In terms of the pacing, this isn't an unrelenting thrill ride that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. It moves along somewhat slowly, building tension as the world around Snake is slowly revealed. In fact it embodies a pacing that just wouldn't fly if this movie were made today. Probably a stretch to even call it a proper action movie. Carpenter's DP does some nice things with casting a green tone over the many of the streets (making me think of Oz) and there's interesting stuff going on the backgrounds of many of the shots. I definitely got the sense of a fully-realized world that we only get to see snippets of during the film's run time, what with the weird Broadway revue going on, the oil-drilling in the Brain's office, the subterranean dwelling crazies that are running around in the fringes, and the broader society over which the Duke (Isaac Hays) rules. And why did Duke outfit his caddy with chandelier headlights?

All of the performances are quite solid throughout. Though the plot is somewhat ridiculous, everybody plays it straight, which really benefits the film. I really like the Duke's right hand man Romero (Frank Doubleday) and was quite smitten with the Amazonianly-sculpted frame of tough-girl Adrienne Barbeau as Brain's moll, Maggie.  She really had me at hello. 

Bottom line, this old classic is quite a delight and is hugely satisfying if you go into it with the right frame of mind. Compared to Carpenter's The Thing, which was released the following year, this movie is lighter fare by far, lacking in dread or that dark tone, and while occasionally violent, it has nowhere near the level of gore and guts from the maestro's follow-up film. I highly recommend!

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