Escape from New York (United States, 1981)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

1988. New York City, overrun by crime, is walled in. It becomes the world's largest, most uncontrolled prison, with the inmates prevented from escaping by armed guards who man the walls twenty-four hours a day. Those confined within the city are free to live and die as they please, creating their own form of government, choosing their leaders, and using guile, brutality, and criminal ingenuity to survive. The city's world-renowned silhouette, gazed upon from the shores of Liberty Island, is familiar, but, without electricity to light up the nights, it has become dark and ominous, like the fledgling society growing in its streets, alleyways, and sewers.

Skip ahead nine years to 1997. The U.S. President's plane, hijacked by terrorists, goes down in the midst of the New York City prison. Master criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), whose chief personality traits are a dry wit and an unrivaled sense of self-preservation, is chosen to enter New York, rescue the President, and get out again. To insure his cooperation, he is injected with tablets that have a twenty-four hour life span. If Snake hasn't done his job by then, his head will explode. So, left without options, he dons a James Bond wristband, hops in a glider, and heads for the top of the World Trade Center.

Escape from New York has one of the most ingenious premises of any film released during the 1980s. For this, if nothing else, director John Carpenter (Halloween, Starman) deserves some credit. Unfortunately, too much of the film's promise goes unfulfilled. Escape from New York isn't really science fiction -- it's an action flick set in a futuristic setting. Epic potential for a masterful, gripping tale is abandoned in favor of cheap thrills.

Action films have certainly come along way in the last fifteen years. In comparison to a Die Hard, Escape from New York has such a low level of excitement that it could almost be considered plodding. Carpenter peppers the film with bursts of action, but there are long, sometimes sluggish, pauses in between. Also, surprisingly (since Carpenter is known as a "master of suspense"), Escape from New York rarely generates much tension, and, when it does, it fails to sustain it. Even the big finale, which involves a chase across a mined bridge, doesn't really get the adrenaline pumping. From an action/adventure standpoint, describing this film as anything better than adequate would be an unwarranted kindness.

Apologists for Escape (and there are mass legions of devoted fans) point out that the film is as much a comedy as it is an action film. And, while it's certainly true that Carpenter has infused the film with elements of irony and wit, his sense of humor is so dour that it rarely sparks more than fitful laughter. In fact, it's easier to recognize that Escape from New York is trying to be funny than it is to actually unearth those few moments of comedy that appear more inspired than pointless.

One area that doesn't merit criticism is the film's look. Although shot on a modest budget of $7 million, Escape from New York has the appearance of a more expensive picture. The skyline scenes of 1997 New York are very impressive. Matte artists, set designers, model makers, and animators all deserve credit for creating a believably futuristic, decadent cityscape. Cinematographer Dean Cundey gets a lot of nice, atmospheric shots that go a long way towards atoning for the film's faults. Carpenter's simple score, which is electronically synthesized, is the perfect audio accompaniment to some of the more ominous visuals (like the scene where the crazies emerge from the New York underground to close in on Snake, recalling George Romero's Night of the Living Dead).

Kurt Russell is delightful as Snake. The actor, known at the time for his Disney films, makes a better-than-average action hero, incorporating aspects of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti western personality into his character. The presence of veteran actor Lee Van Cleef (For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), who appears to be enjoying himself enormously, reinforces the Eastwood comparisons. Donald Pleasence, Adrienne Barbeau, and Harry Dean Stanton turn in solid supporting performances. Ernest Borgnine does a wonderful turn as a New York cabby who still remembers the old days, and Isaac Hayes is deliciously nasty as the Duke. Stealing perhaps every scene he's in, however, is Frank Doubleday, whose turn as a bit player is so exaggerated and over-the-top that it's impossible not to notice him.

So, considering all aspects of the production, what is Escape from New York? A failed science fiction spectacle that devolves into a mediocre action/comedy? Or an underrated cult classic that functions as a ground-breaking adventure film? Perhaps, as is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. Escape from New York is definitely watchable, and, at times, quite enjoyable. However, when the final credits roll, you can be forgiven a vague sense of dissatisfaction, because the creativity that went into formulating the premise was never extended to the script writing stage.

Escape from New York (United States, 1981)

Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1