Escape from New York

Escape from New York ★★★½

One of those true cult classics that comes with an unexpectedly foreboding division of ratings, but in the long run proves a keeper on revisit.

I first saw this in my early 20s, and whilst it was a good enough genre film, it failed to match the hype. Several years down the line, the auteur sensibilities of Carpenter are much more apparent to me and provide a large proportion of the appeal. Escape from New York is one of his most immersive cinematic creations, and dare I say a note perfect film in many respects. The bleak vacancy, cynical mood and retro fittings embolden the lovingly foggy gloss of an otherwise haunting filmworld which leaves you wanting more and calls you back like a siren.

Tonally, Escape From New York locates a perfect blend between Carpenter's penchant for suspense horror and inspired comedy, eschewing cheese, reflecting contemporary cultural critique and imbuing a high-concept scenario with genius crossover references (which is where Borgnine's taxi driver repays its inclusion handsomely). The comedy here is always special in a good way, but Escape From New York's homeland futurism expertly paints with many contemporary influences and classic tropes.

Contrary to reputation, the appeal does not reside in Russell's iconic Snake Plissken. Russell, whilst breaking out from cuddlier stables and demonstrating deadpan chops and a sleek physique, is beside the point, not always convincing and barely worth writing home about. Maybe the unreal supporting cast is partly to blame here, as Russell's charisma paradoxically grapples with character cool inconclusively and fails to stand out fully amidst keenly pitched work from a legendary genre pic ensemble of singularly fearless performers.

This is certainly Carpenter's film (as it should be), and the film rests heavily on long shots which soak up the near-future, somewhat post-apocalyptic locale, shrinking the human characters populating the film, as well as overshadowing the slightly ridiculous but otherwise anchoring madcap brilliance and immediacy of the mission, carnival crazies riffing most blackly upon a stage. Escape From New York rests between mission immediacy and a desire to soak up the world more fully, a near-cursory tourist through plot (and budget) necessity, but a more circumspect moment on my part might observe that Carpenter hits the Jarmuschian sweet spot, offering penetrating vistas and sequences, filmic roadside environments for naivetes and cynics alike to traverse at a specific clip (all Modest Mouse urgencies xanaxed to a dull roar, with motion through spaces of urban paranoia ensconced in gluey dread), so far as they leave you wanting more. Curiously, Escape From New York is also one of the spookier pre-9/11 fictional features, enhancing the haunting crestfallen after hours runaround that the human fragments in the film almost cling to for hope, or at least for a thrill out of the murk. The ongoing homeland problems of prisons (which extend as far as a nastily motivational death by injection), rogue ex-soldiers and political disassociation also plague the American condition. In a world that shines the light on stage dancers like presidents in geo-political square dances and Gullfires flown over Leningrad, life goes on (and hard) in the shadows, disaffected until its support is called upon, whether for token populism or begging through gritted teeth and corrupt, remorseless decision-making in nightmare scenarios. These cries and cat eyes in the jungle dark are drawn on heavily with depth of feeling to fill out a next-level prison escape yarn, never too solemn and never too farcical, but pitch perfect. Tear-resistant, a plane tragedy (the manner and vicinity of which is spine-chilling) is barely acknowledged, the lack of which ironically loads their silence. Carpenter's musical theme noodling has also advanced immeasurably, clearly inspired by the evocative material, with the distinct, effective earworms provided in accompaniment here slivering about the moving image in organic wrap and doing it considerable justice and keenly-pitched dating charm.

If you were left disappointed with Escape from New York on your first go around, I implore you to give another shot, as this small-scale diamond yields considerable glow and belongs among his most essential works. Whilst the reach of this ramshackle romp of high-concept, freeze-fried human compost is slightly contained, a sucker punch left hanging there in encrusted suspension, reckoning glimpsed a few epochs prior to the teeth spraying, groping towards the limelight without selling out show-stoppingly, what it does bring to the table is luminous.

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