Escape from New York is a John Carpenter classic from his most successful period as a director; however, how well does the film stand the test of time as it nears the 30th anniversary of its release? Surprisingly well in some regards, and not so well in others.
There’s no denying that the film has a fantastic premise; in fact, it’s almost so good, that it’s arguable that the premise itself is what hinders the final product if we’re all being honest. The premise is that in 1988 crime was on the rise 400% and in order to contain all the criminals, Manhattan was turned into a prison city, quarantined by walls and military forces at all angles, though with no guards on the inside, the criminals are left to fend for themselves. Flash-forward to 1997 and we find out that a group of extremists hijacked Air Force One and crashed it onto the island. A rescue team is sent in to retrieve the president (played by Donald Pleasance), as well as a briefcase he was carrying containing vital top-secret information, though they’re quickly forced to retreat at the demands of one of the gangs, who are holding the president hostage in order to gain freedom.
With no other way to infiltrate the island without being noticed, the government has no choice but to seek help from Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a well-decorated former-Lieutenant Special Forces, turned bank robber and set to serve a life sentence on the same island on which the president now resides. Of course, Plissken wants no part in this, and when told that they need an answer now on what they should do, he coolly responds “Get a new President.” After a bit more coaxing, and the promise to give him a full pardon for all his criminal actions, Snake is told he has 24 hours to rescue the president, and return with him, and the briefcase, or all bets are off. Snake is told that after 24 hours, the information the president is carrying, which is important to world peace, will be useless, as will be the president, and thus, so will Snake.
In order to be sure Snake doesn’t take the plane they give him to fly to the island and use it to escape and fly to Canada, the powers that be trick Snake into being injected with what he believes is a strong anti-toxin that will protect him from bacterial and viral growth for 24 hours, when in reality they took two microscopic capsules and lodged them into his arteries, and if he’s not back within 24 hours, with the president and briefcase, the capsules will dissolve, detonating two small explosives that will all but kill him instantly.
The above just sounds like an intense film, with loads of suspense and action just waiting to happen. Unfortunately, if that’s what you’re thinking, in the end you’ll still be waiting for it to happen as the credits begin to roll. That may be a bit harsh, it’s just that in reality, the film is surprisingly dull, and lacking any true suspense that’s needed to make you feel as though the Snake is ever in any real trouble. The gangs never really feel frightening, as Snake spends most of his time just running around with no real worry.
Along the way, Snake meets up with various people who help him on his mission, though these characters feel extremely one-dimensional for the most part, and almost seem like they’re there to just serve a small role before perishing anticlimactically. The villain of the film (though some would argue it’s the military and the government who are the true villains) is The Duke (Isaac Hayes), who is the guy who all but runs the asylum that is Manhattan. This sounds like quite the intimidating fellow, but in truth, he lacks the true presence of a lead villain, and never really feels like a threat.
This isn’t to say Escape from New York is a bad film, it’s just not all it could be, and in truth, it’s the setting that both saved this movie, and made it as memorable as it is, outside of Russell’s work as Plissken. Director John Carpenter, Production Designer Joe Alves, and Cinematographer Dean Cundey created a broken, destroyed, rundown Manhattan as the backdrop with a mere $7 million budget. The superb work they did gives you the feeling while watching the film that they actually destroyed a city in the making of process with how realistically they did things. The mood is captured perfectly in each shot, and while the tension may be lacking, the understanding of what a deplorable place this is remains unquestionable.
Along with the setting of the film, the antihero, Snake Plissken, is one of the coolest characters to grace the silver screen, so much so that you wish they’d given him the film he fully deserved. Russell is a perfect fit, and really puts everything into making Snake as calm, cool and collective as one can be, while also being a complete bad-ass. It’s a character that could have gone on to do more, without a doubt, but unfortunately never really got out of the gate.
Escape from New York is regarded as a classic to many Carpenter fans, and as a career-defining role for Russell. I’ll give them one of the two, as it just could have been so much more given the can’t-miss premise that somehow did miss, even with such an amazing setting that could rival even some created today for three times the budget. It’s a film that should be seen, for those reasons alone, but poor editing, bad pacing, and a lack of overall tension really hurt what’s suppose to be an action-thriller.
The video looks great, and it really did transfer well. The best part about it is that the upgrade didn’t hurt the grainy, dark lighting of the film, and the mood and dank setting remains intact, while still looking fantastic in 1080p. The audio is solid as well, though gunshots sound muffled and almost fake. I’m not sure how plausible it would be to update these sounds, and make them fit just as well without hindering the product, but I’m sure it can be done. Either way, a small complaint on a rather solid transfer.
This is where things get inexcusable. While extras aren’t for everyone, we’re nearing the 30th anniversary for this film, and there are absolutely no extras to be found on this disc. I’m honestly not sure why they didn’t wait a year and make an ultimate 30th anniversary edition, and include a bunch of extras, but they didn’t and fans are left with nothing but the film itself in both Blu-ray and DVD.
As I said before, Escape from New York is a decent film with a fantastic premise. There’s no denying that Kurt Russell is the man as Snake Plissken, and he’s a character that deserved more, and could have easily been a franchise player. While the movie is enjoyable enough, it’s Russell as Plissken, and the incredibly realistic depiction of a criminally overrun Manhattan that truly make this film memorable.
MGM Home Entertainment presents Escape from New York. Directed by: John Carpenter. Starring: Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine. Written by: John Carpenter & Nick Castle. Running time: 99 Minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: Aug. 3, 2010.
Brendan Campbell was here when Inside Pulse Movies began, and he’ll be here when it finishes - in 2012, when a cataclysmic event wipes out the servers, as well as everyone else on the planet other than John Cusack and those close to him. Brendan’s the #1 supporter of Keanu Reeves, a huge fan of popcorn flicks and a firm believer that sheer entertainment can take a film a long way. He currently resides in Canada, where, for reasons stated above, he’s attempting to get closer to John Cusack.