Escape from New York

Escape from New York ★★★

The fact that I've only seen two John Carpenter films is something that causes me a lot less embarrassment than it probably should, and Escape from New York hasn't changed anything. It's a grungy action thriller set in what was in 1981 the near future - 1997, to be precise - by which time, the film tells us, the crime rate in America will have quadrupled, necessitating the transformation of Manhattan into the country's sole prison. When Air Force One is hijacked while flying over New York on the way to an important summit that may prevent nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the President is ejected in an escape pod, landing within Manhattan's maximum-security walls. Special Forces soldier-turned-convict Snake Plissken is given just twenty-two hours to rescue him or else he'll be killed by the micro-explosives inserted into his bloodstream to ensure he gets the job done.

Escape from New York is as lean as it is possible for a film to be, with no extraneous dialogue whatsoever. This is both a virtue and a flaw. On the one hand, it contributes to the atmosphere of roughness and menace that the visuals work to evoke. On the other hand, however, it prevents the film from touching on the issues that it clearly has within its sights, issues such as terrorism, urban decay, international relations, and the problem with America's criminal justice system. It also means that neither the characters nor the dialogue is hugely memorable, and I wasn't surprised that the one with the fewest lines was the only woman. There are, however, some impressive set-pieces, including Kurt Russell's gladiatorial wrestling match with a man twice his size and the final car chase. The cast is also a bonus, with names such as Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasence and Harry Dean Stanton all doing their bit.

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