Back when I was 9 my dad took me to work with him. He was doing some post production on his latest ad and the destination was a place in Dedham, Massachusetts whose name escapes me at the moment. I’m not sure why he took me with him, there was nothing for me to do there. It was looking like a long day of fidgeting in a director’s chair while the my dad, the director and the editor scrubbed back and forth through the video but thankfully this place had a client lounge. Supposedly it was stocked with plenty of shit to do, but when I got in there, I found a big TV, a VCR and one video tape. My dad picked it up, looked at it and said, “Escape From New York. This movie is great!” then he put it on and went back to the edit bay. Little did I know that he was desperate for something to occupy me and had never seen it. Years later I would tell this story again, in the presence of my mother, and he would deny putting it on for me, but little did he know what Escape From New York was going to do for me.
This is my favorite movie of all time. I can definitively say this. Of the countles movies I’ve seen, through years of staying up late and enduring marathons of genre movies, I can point to Escape From New York and tell you, without missing a beat, that it’s my favorite movie. I can also tell you that John Carpenter is my favorite director. Of his work, his movies from 1974 to 1988 are some of my favorite movies of all time, but this one in particular is his crowning achievement. Sing the praises of Halloween or The Thing all you like. They’re fantastic but they don’t hold a candle to Escape From New York.
By 1997, the crime rate in the United States has risen so sharply, particularly in New York City, that the only feasible thing to do is wall off Manhattan and deposit America’s criminals there, left to fend for themselves. Why this happens is never exaplained. but as you’ll discover, neither are some other plot points such as why does everyone think Snake is dead and how did a British man manage to maneuver around that clause in American law that says the President must be a natural citizen of the United States. What we come to learn is that there is some kind of war going on, most likely World War 3, and that humanity is on the brink of extinction should a casette in the possession of the President not make it to the Hartford Summit. Lucky for us, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
Air Force One has been hijacked by political extremists. The terrorist declares over the radio that they’re going to crash the plane into New York, the ultimate symbol of the fascist police state. The president is tucked away into a protective crash pod and after the plane hits a building in the city, it tumbles to the ground and is broken open whereupon the President is kidnapped by the criminals running wild in their giant prison. When the cops land in the prison, they’re confronted by Romero, the weirdo/right-hand man to the prison’s local kingpin, The Duke of New York. They have the president and if the cops don’t beat it, they’ll kill him. Thankfully, the newest prisoner to arrive on the island is more than capable of getting him back. S.D. “Snake” Plissken has been arrested on charges related to robbing the Federal Reserve and is going in for a life sentence when he’s pulled into the Police Commissioner’s office and we’re given the rundown. Plissken is a war hero, a member of special forces and is responsible for some big deal military operations inside The Soviet Union. He has the skills to sneak into the prison, find the President and get back out quietly. If he does this, he’ll receive a pardon for every criminal act he’s ever committed.
But there’s a catch.
The President was on his way to the aforementioned Hartford Summit. Tensions between China, The Soviets and America are pretty high and if he doesn’t get there in time with the tape, our enemies will go home, we’ll have lost a chance to avoid a thermonuclear wipeout and everyone loses. Snake has a narrow time limit, 24 hours. To further the tension, Snake is injected with two explosive charges in his carotid arteries. If he tries to make a fast getaway or doesn’t make it in time, they go boom and Snake bleeds to death quickly. Without many other options, he goes in in a glider and lands on the World Trade Center. When he gets down on the ground he discovers that the President’s pod is empty and that his homing beacon has been placed on some crazy-ass drunk. Police Commissioner Hauk tells him that there’s still plenty of time to find the President so he sets off with the help of a local cabbie to find The Duke. Along the way, Snake is reunited with an old partner, Harold Hellman, nicknamed Brain, who ditched him and another partner when things got bad during a heist, potentially the reason for the running joke in the movie. Many, many times someone will see Snake and declare, “I heard you were dead.” The reasons for this are never explained though fans have come to learn that it’s a tribute to the John Wayne picture, Big Jake which many people say to Jake McCandles throughout that picture.
Snake and his crew manage to find the President, but just as they’re about to make their escape, The Duke shows up, captures Snake and takes the President back. The plan is to take The President, along with everyone in the god damn city up the 69th street bridge and demand their freedom for the President’s life but Snake has other plans. After winning a seemingly impossible gladiatorial fight, Snake, Brain, Maggie and Cabbie take the president to the bridge and stage their daring getaway.
I’m not even sure how to start explaining the cool of this movie. It’s saturated in total sweetness! All around are great characters, Snake Plissken being the centerpiece. Snake, played to absolute baddest by Kurt Russell, is not even remotely a good guy. As a matter of fact, there isn’t a good guy in the entire movie! Everyone is either a representative of the fascist government or a criminal. Snake has nothing to lose but he also doesn’t give a shit about anything else. Ordinarily, it’s tough to sympathize with such a sociopath yet in spite of his epic sense of self preservation and innate villainy, Snake is a great hero character. He dripped cool years before four out of five action movies featured such a character. Nearly all of his lines are delivered through a clenched jaw, like Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie seems blissfully unaware of what is going on around him, Harry Dean Stanton is nervous but brilliant and Isaac Hayes is supremely bad ass as The Duke.
The city is also as much a part of the movie as the stars. Though I’m pretty sure that not a single frame of the movie is shot in New York City, it’s a very functional facsimile. The actual locations were shot in St. Louis after a catastrophic fire rendered much of the riverfront area to rubble. All you really need to see are buildings, city streets and decay and these locations do this perfectly. Carpenter’s photographer, Dean Cundey, is also credited with giving the movie the perfect “feel”. Set almost entirely at night, Cundey’s photography used a special lens, new at the time, that got the most light out of night time shoots maximizing practical light rather than requiring huge lighting rigs. As a result, the ambience of the scenery is much more natural and bright light sources give off this unique lens flare that add to the decaying tech feel of the movie. You can see this effect used in other movies shot by Cundey.
Made on 7 million bucks, the movie manages to get every cent up on the screen. From very real looking matte paintings (provided by then special effects artist, James Cameron) and their related composite shots to the action to the pyros (maybe with the exception of the cab explosion which cuts the car cleanly in half) everything about this movie looks great and on top of it all, it has aged remarkably well. While the concept of 1997 being the future is pretty silly these days, most sci fi movies and the vision of the future base their production design in the era that produced them. Particularly, the sci fi of the 70’s and 80’s often looks like the 70’s or 80’s with more wires and techno-junk glued to existing technology. Since Escape From New York doesn’t deal with that aspect of the genre that much, it manages to avoid dating itself. Obviously, by today’s standards it looks like an old movie but other movies of the era have suffered a much worse fate than this one. To be made on such a small budget and to dodge the typical pitfalls of the genre is remarkable!
Finally, John Carpenter provided the soundtrack as he usually does with his movies and in following with his movies of the past, it’s an entirely electronic affair. However, in a rare departutre from his typical style, Carpenter composes themes and cues with much more body than he typically provides. Better known for repetitive, memorable themes and minimalist drones, the music in Escape From New York is much wider, with much more character and diversity than music from Assault On Precinct 13 or Halloween, both great in their own right but not much more than their central themes. Here, every theme is different yet they all feel connected. On a side note, the edition of the soundtrack released by Silva America is worth every penny. All the tracks are there as well as some unused music and dialog bits from the movie.
It’s not without its flaws but Escape From New York is John Carpenter at his absolute peak. Kurt Russell turns out his finest, most memorable character that also managed to break him away from the Disney associations most people had and given the social context that Carpenter had in mind when he wrote it (post-Watergate America) it seems to have a new relevance and means now more than it ever has. I don’t want to make too much out of an exploitation movie but in these times of Bush America, we have to choose the least evil among us if anyone is going to save us.