Escape from New York

Escape from New York ★★★★★

I wouldn't make a wild claim about this objectively being John Carpenter's best movie, but I do think it's my own personal favorite. I saw this years before I moved to New York and was struck by the fantasy of a city that was entirely enclosed and self sufficient, even if there were no armed guards or mines stationed at all the bridges. And it's amazing that this setting even feels like New York because so little of it was even shot there, but even without major landmarks outside of the occasional "Chock Full O'Nuts" in the background Carpenter is able to create such a rich world full of logical depictions of how things might function if the entire city became an unsupervised playground for criminals of all types.

The teaming of Carpenter and Kurt Russell here is absolutely essential. Characters like Snake Plissken tend to get a bad rap, with critics claiming them to be one note, what with their perma-sneer and low voiced monotone intensity. People have been criticizing these personas, like Russell's or anything Clint Eastwood ever played, but if an actor commits to this kind of performance, it can pay off beautifully. Snake is a classic rebel. It's not that he's such a bad guy, but he doesn't believe in anything and has no respect for authority. One imagines that he would have no qualms accepting the assignment to rescue the fallen president from the island prison, and then abandon the job to carve out a nice little life for himself in TriBeCa. Of course he's forced to comply, lest an injection in his bloodstream kill him 24 hours later. I love that the film has a hard defined ticking clock, and yet the story takes its sweet time for the first half hour before Snake even lands in Manhattan. All the set up is delivered calmly and direct so no frantic high stakes have an opportunity to upstage the chaos that awaits Snake, and oh what glorious chaos it is.

Being so familiar with Manhattan, every time I watch the film, (which tends to be often), I imagine how I might approach Snake's mission myself. I could never take on a villain as ruthless as The Duke, but how might I map out my route to reach President Donald Pleasance? Would I befriend a lovable cabby and rely on him to get me somewhere safely, or would I trust no one and take a creative path through side streets to avoid detection? My dream version of this film would have clearly defined NYC locations but they end up not being necessary. A roster of character actors stand in for New York authenticity. So many fun faces here, such as Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, and the great Lee Van Cleef, who stares down Snake like a pro after years of practice facing off against his no-named blonde adversary in Eastwood. Even bit players with few or no lines make a strong impression, thanks to the wild punk style on display within the apocalyptic NYC motif. Frank Doubleday's henchman has such a fantastic face, scowl, and crazed smile (perhaps borrowed from Conrad Veidt's "The Man Who Laughs"), that I can't understand why he didn't constantly pop up in films like this. His filmography is much too short, and certainly was never used this well again, but few of the cast was lucky enough to get parts as great as the ones offered here. Certainly better characterizations than one can usually hope for in a mindless action movie.

This is one of those 80's sci-fi cult films that is fully time-stamped and should feel dated, but never really does. It transcends the primitive computer technology and laughable claims of this all taking place by 1998. One fully embraces it because who wouldn't want to give in to such a fun and entertaining concept? I do wish this had become more of a franchise, because the possibilities were endless. Yes, there is the sequel, "Escape From L.A." which can't quite hold a candle to this, though I do have affection for that film and many of the same eccentric character types get revived for that one and played by some of the great character actors of that decade. But you can't beat this original classic. It checks every box you look for in a Carpenter film, down to that perfect synth score. I just watched this for the umpteenth time the other night, and just writing about it has put me in the mood to watch it again.

Johnny liked these reviews