Monday, May 20, 2013

My Favorite Era: Escape From New York (1981)

John Carpenter's Escape From New York is one of his best, a lean and mean action flick with a bare bones plot and an iconic Kurt Russell performance.  Russell is Snake Plissken, a loner in the classic Clint Eastwood mold (though much more cynical) who has been press ganged into saving the life of the President (Donald Pleasence).  There's good action, a great cast and just an utter sense of coolness that permeates the entire film.  Let's take a closer look.
  • First off, this is another one of those films in the 70's and 80's that spawned a bunch of European knockoffs.  The best one is 2019: After the Fall of New York which I have examined elsewhere on the site.
  • To the film, it starts us off on the right foot with Carpenter's awesome main title theme.  Carpenter did the music for most of his films and this is one of his better scores.
  • The cast is, as I said, awesome.  Russell is great of course but you also get good work from Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Pleasence and Isaac Hayes.  Now that's a damned cast!  We also get bit parts from a few Carpenter regulars such as Charles Cyphers and Tom Atkins.
  • I dig the simple, basic way the story is set up with a little text and narration telling us New York City has been turned into a maximum security prison.  Carpenter is generally quite good at this sort of lean storytelling.  I say usually because, well, it has been quite a while since he had a good movie.
  • Russell is fantastic as Snake, managing to out-badass Clint Eastwood by simply growling out the few lines of dialogue he has in a whispery drawl while stalking around with his eye patch and a big gun.  He just oozes cool.
  • Lee van Cleef is fun as usual as Bob Hauk, the guy who enlists Snake and he brings a certain charm to the role.
  • Pleasence is fun as always, though it's a little odd to have the American president played by a rather small bald guy from England.  I've read reviews that say he's a little too wimpy in the part but considering the story requirements, it works to have a crap president in charge of what has become a rather crappy country.  The world the story inhabits is quite well put together and it  makes one wonder what the rest of the world looks like.  Plus, he does get to kill the bad guy at the end while cackling insanely as only Donald can.
  • Like most action films of the early 80's, this one takes its time setting up the story.  It's nearly eighteen minutes into the 99 minute running time before Snake is given his task.  Carpenter keeps the film moving though, never letting the viewer become bored.
  • Injecting Snake with mini-explosives to make sure he sticks to schedule is also a nice touch.

  • The film was put out by Avco/Embassy and released on Embassy Home Video.  Always like the box art.
  • I love that some of the denizens of the prison are putting on a Broadway revue.  Just a great touch.
  • The trio of Borgnine, Stanton and Barbeau are an entertaining trio as Borgnine provides some good natured humor; Stanton is fun and Adrienne Barbeau is cool as always.

  •  Isaac Hayes is great as The Duke of New York.  Cool, eerily calm and casually violent, he's one of Carpenter's better villains.  The chandeliers on the guy's car are a nice touch as well.
  • Back to Kurt's performance, one of the great things he does is give Snake a sense of casual urgency.  He wants to get the job done, since it's his neck...literally but the way he goes about it is nicely understated.  He observes and thinks things through, a rarity in the genre.  He's also quite amusing in a dark way,
  • Gotta love the fight Snake is out into with a huge mountain of a man (former pro wrestler Ox Baker).
  • I get a kick out of Frank Doubleday as The Duke's right hand man.  He's just a weird, bizarre little freak who fits in nicely with the rest of the film.  Doubleday was also in Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 which is also pretty damn good.
  • The escape from Duke and the following action sequence with Snake and company trying to cross the heavily mined 69th Street Bridge is pretty good with Carpenter showing no mercy to his characters.  By the end of it all, only Snake and the president are left standing.
  • I get a chuckle out of Snake making the president look an idiot as the end credits roll.  It's a nice cynical touch.
Escape From New York is one hell of a fun ride that still works pretty well today.  The 1996 sequel Escape From L.A. is also decent, though it is really just a re-working of the first one which is kind of cool in a way.  The first one is the best, however, with a great Kurt Russell performance, some good action and a fantastic look.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.