John Carpenter has always been known as a director who’s always been somewhat ahead of his time – hell, let’s be honest here, we’re only one extra-terrestrial scandal away from They Live being a full on documentary – but Escape From New York, a low budget, high concept slice of sci-fi/thriller, also proved to be a pre cognitive flash of cult brilliance that came out as early as 1981.
On a hot streak that so far included Halloween and The Fog, Carpenter essentially crafted a neo-western that took the kind of criminal element like the foam-spitting lunatics from a Death Wish movie, or the steely eyed gang members from Walter Hill’s The Warriors and dropped them into a literal prison state that’s a hard right conservative’s wet dream. Heaping on themes that would come to regularly surface in the auteur’s work (mistrust of authority, cynical anti heroes, Kurt Russell having awesome hair) and managing to pull off a hugely ambitious story with old-school resources and camera trickery, Escape From New York may not be the first movie that springs to mind when asked to bring up a movie from the director’s decidedly above average rosta of titles, but it earns it’s stripes by the sheer stone cold swagger of it’s mouth watering premise and memorable characters.
A solemn voice over (by Jamie Lee Curtis, no less) informs us that in 1988, the U.S. crime rate rises by 400% and so to counteract this the whole of Manhattan island has been walled off and is being used as a maximum security penal colony where anyone dumped in there has to fight to survive with no hope of parole.
Skip ahead to 1997 (aka. “The Future”) and the callous American president (played by the exceedingly English Donald Pleasance) is stranded in New York when Air Force One crash lands enroute to a vital peace summit. Unable to get him out in time by force, squinty Commissioner Hauk elects to pluck Snake Plissken, a one-eyed special forces agent turned bank robber, out from his imminent prison term and make a deal on a hail mary play. Snake has 22 hours to infiltrate New York and rescue POTUS before war breaks out, but Hauk has an extra devious card up his sleeve to make sure the notoriously untrustworthy Plissken stays on mission – microscopic explosives implanted in his arteries that are timed to go off when the time runs out. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Snake has to negotiate the various freaks, cannibals and eccentrics located in the prison in order to succeed in a mission he has absolutely no interest in while avoiding the psychotic self-proclaimed Duke Of New York and his followers. Faced with an unrelenting deadline and literally surrounded by trust intolerant people everywhere he turns, can Snake somehow shoot, lie, bargain and double cross his way out of the worst place on earth to save his own skin, not to mention the delicate balance world peace – something our hero doesn’t give much of a shit about.
Enjoying a period of rich creative flow, Escape From New York marked the most ambitious story yet from Carpenter (with co-writer and ex-Michael Myers actor Nick Castle) who managed to bang out the most “cult movie” plots in history and what’s even more impressive is that the production managed to pull it off with piss all money too. Back in those analogue days Carpenter and Co. manage to do so much with so little (the computer generated scans of New York are just cardboard boxes with a black light on them) but are gifted by a virtual army of character actors populating this incredibly resourceful bout of world building.
Kurt Russell – shamelessly channelling Clint Eastwood like he’s trying to win a cash prize in an impersonation competition – is fantastic; a gruff, amoral cypher of a survivor who propels the story through various schools and is hugely enjoying playing an anti-hero who has next to no backstory but whose legendary reputation precedes him wherever he goes “Snake Plissken, huh?” marvels almost every character he meets, “I heard you were dead.”. One of Carpenter’s most iconic characters, it’s interesting to note that Snake, despite his impressive rep, actually isn’t a preternaturally adept killing machine like the roles Stallone and Schwarzenegger would go on to play, but instead is a massively flawed yet extremely devious dude who is susceptible to flesh wounds and hideous bad luck just like the rest of us and yet manages to wriggle through by the narrowest of margins simply because the jammy fucker just won’t die.
Making Russell’s life easier (and by extention making Plissken’s harder) is that aforementioned supporting cast that contains such demigods as Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Adrianne Barbeau, Donald Pleasance, Tom Atkins and even Issac Hayes as the various, colourful denizens of the ruined, titular dystopia who flesh out their respective roles with aplomb. Special note goes to Lee Van Cleef’s nostrils which are flared wider than his permanently narrowed eyelids and whatever the hell accent Pleasance is barely trying to palm off as American which allows his last reel screaming to foreshadow the epic meltdown he pulls off in Halloween 5…
However, the filmmakers ambitions only stretch so far and considering there’s no real big action set pieces to speak of (any fights or car chases are severely limited and Snake sneaks around a LOT) younger audiences may well look back at this 80’s cult classic with some confusion and maybe even a little boredom and while Carpenter’s themes are as modern as ever (America trying to literally wall off it’s problems) sometimes the visuals strain in a world of Hi-def.
But despite these understandable financial limitations, the film is propelled through any patchy spots by the phenomenal score from Carpenter and regular musical conspirator Alan Howarth, whose droning synths all but cement the movie’s cool credentials with arguably the multi-talented director’s best theme (although, to be fair, I’ve probably said that about ALL of his scores… so whatever).
A lean, mean sci-fi thriller that boasts one of cinema’s greatest anti-heroes (it’s not every man that can pull off an eye patch/mullet combo with such confidence), Escape From New York may be the most dated of of Carpenter’s earlier classics but is still loaded with enough cool, cult sensibilities to make it relevant in our similarly chaotic times.
Snake Plissken? Yeah, I heard’a him… I heard he was dead.
Dead fucking awesome that is.