Have You Seen… ‘Escape From New York’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

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Escape From New York a

Kurt Russell as “Snake” Plissken, the iconic anti-hero of John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From New York’ (image credit: Studiocanal).

Year: 1981

Starring:  Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau

Directed by:  John Carpenter / written by:  John Carpenter and Nick Castle

What’s it about?

1997: New York is now a maximum-security prison and when the President of the United States is taken hostage after terrorists seize Air Force One, the authorities enlist the help of “Snake” Plissken – a convicted criminal and ex-Special Forces solider…

In review: why you should see it

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York may not be as widely known to contemporary viewers as the director’s more iconic mainstream hits – Halloween and The Thing – but it’s a science fiction action cult classic and comfortably one of Carpenter’s best films.  Taking place in the dystopic then-future of 1997, the U.S. crime rate has risen to uncontrollable levels leading to the conversion of Manhattan Island into a maximum-security prison, the city of New York being walled-off and mined in order to contain the most dangerous of criminals.  When the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) – on his way to a critical peacekeeping summit – is taken hostage after fleeing a terrorist-seized Air Force One, the U.S. Police Force enlists the help of “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell – who would subsequently star in The Thing) a former Special Forces operative incarcerated after attempting to rob the Federal Reserve.  Offered a full pardon if he can rescue the President and get him out of New York alive within 24 hours, Snake is unwittingly given an extra incentive:  explosive charges injected into his arteries that will only be neutralised if he succeeds and returns in time.  Free to roam the decaying New York landscape and live as they please, with no hope of ever leaving, the prisoners within bow to the rule of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) – the city’s overall crime boss – and Snake, with his life already on the line, must fight his way through the deranged and deadly gangs of a place that once stood for peace and liberty before it’s too late.

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Oscar-winning music legend Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York (image credit: Studiocanal).

As the gruff, eye-patch wearing and no-nonsense Snake, the excellent Kurt Russell, with some Clint Eastwood-esque delivery (and accompanying attitude), creates an iconic action anti-hero (who would be the basis for the “Snake” character of the popular video game series Metal Gear Solid) – a disillusioned man, jaded and apathetic to the Stars and Stripes, whose only real interest here is his own survival.  It’s a central character we’re not initially supposed to like but quickly find ourselves rooting for.  Co-starring with Russell is Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as the equally no-nonsense police chief, Bob Hauk, whose grudging dislike for Snake begins to soften as he monitors the mission’s progress from the Liberty Island control centre.  Also appearing is Alien’s Harry Dean Stanton as “Brain” a genius engineer serving as an advisor to the Duke, Adrienne Barbeau (wife of Carpenter and star of one of his previous films – The Fog) as Brain’s tough-as-nails girlfriend, Maggie and Airwolf’s Ernest Borgnine as “Cabby”, the New York cabdriver who helps Snake get about in his armoured taxi.  Donald Pleasence, best remembered as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the classic James Bond film You Only Live Twice, provides a wonderful performance as the slightly buffoonish U.S. President and music legend Isaac Hayes (later the voice of Chef in South Park) makes for an appropriately menacing villain as the proclaimed Duke of New York and is aided by Frank Doubleday (previously from Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13) as the oddball and eccentric Romero – named after George Romero, director of legendary zombie-horror classic Night of the Living Dead.

Considering its modest $6 million budget and the technical limitations of the time, the production of Escape From New York remains impressive.  Without the by now all too easy reliance on computer generated wizardry, John Carpenter and his team employ incredible ingenuity to combine miniatures, physical sets and matte-painted backgrounds (all helping to effectively create Snake’s stealthy insertion into New York by glider plane) with the St. Louis locations, practical effects and stunts that blend to create a suitably declining and rotten New York (that feels as indelibly dangerous as it looks, even more so given much of the film takes place at night – kudos to Director of Photography Dean Cundey) complemented by the expertly staged action sequences – whether it be gun battles or fist fights…even the arena match Snake is forced to submit to.  It’s been said before but despite the great wonders that can be achieved with CGI, its now predominant usage has diminished the true art and craft of filmmaking.

Escape From New York oozes atmosphere and is populated with colourful characters backed up by a great script.  Writing with Nick Castle, Carpenter produces a pleasingly lean and uncomplicated action-narrative laced with political subtext, social commentary (the real-world escalating New York crime rate feeding the core concept) and flourishes of black humour.  The film’s memorable synthesized music score is also composed by Carpenter (with Alan Howarth) and like much of his directorial output is an important component, elevating all the tension and excitement as the stakes begin to stack up.

Escape From New York would prove another success for John Carpenter and after teaming up for The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell would later reunite for a disappointingly poor sequel – 1996’s Escape From L.A. – but that doesn’t erase the appeal and the pure entertainment value of Escape From New York.

Geek fact!

Working with Carpenter on Escape From New York is future director James Cameron (credited as “Jim” Cameron) as part of the visual effects team and a matte artist, just a few years away from his breakout success with The Terminator.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

13 thoughts on “Have You Seen… ‘Escape From New York’?

  1. Great look back at Escape from New York, great film. Must admit its been ages since I’ve seen it, but now as we are all at home more its the perfect time to enjoy some awesome movies! 🙂

  2. Believe it or not Ghosts of Mars was originally another Snake Plissken film that at one point was called Escape from Earth but the failure of Escape from L.A. doomed the third film and it eventually became the film we know with Ice Cube’s character being a stand in for Snake.
    It’s too bad more films with this awesome anti hero weren’t made. Your insightful review just reminded me of how great the first film was and how much I miss seeing Snake sneering onscreen.

    • Wow, I actually didn’t know that! I would love to see Carpenter and Russell (sounds like a law firm haha) return for a Logan-esque final outing for Snake…it’d have to be a stronger effort than Escape From L.A. though!

      Highly unlikely that’ll ever happen but at least we still have the classic original to enjoy over and over…

  3. Funny that you mention Clint Eastwood here, I was actually looking to check out Escape From Alcatraz soon, even if it probably has nothing to do with Escape From New York hahaha I’ll definitely have to add this one to my watchlist though. It feels like a 80s movie that I can greatly appreciate. I also love that James Cameron geek fact. Who would’ve known! Thanks for sharing, Chris. You got me in a mood for some good sci-fi action flicks.

    I recently saw Spaceballs and wasn’t enamoured by it and need to re-establish my love for Scifi movies ASAP hahaha Did you get around to finishing the Mandalorian? I really am glad that they created that series. Best thing to happen to SW since Episode VI!

    • I’m a big fan of Escape From Alcatraz (and Clint Eastwood in general), so if you’re an Eastwood fan you’ll enjoy it! Likewise, I think you’ll appreciate Escape From New York – I’d say it’s definitely ‘up there’ with The Thing in terms of classic SF and John Carpenter’s own filmography.

      I quite like Spaceballs tbh but it’s one I did grow up with so there’s a certain nostalgia attached to it for me, if you’re not convinced about Mel Brooks then I wholeheartedly recommend ‘The Producers’!

      Alas, Disney+ UK haven’t released all of the Mandalorian yet but I have been watching each episode as it gets added weekly. Currently up to episode 6 and really liking it – I think there’s a lot of potential for these Star Wars streaming shows and I’m much more in anticipation of those than any further big screen instalments.

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