Escape from New York

Escape from New York ★★★★½

In the year 1997, after crime rates have risen sharply, Manhattan Island serves as a maximum security prison for the entire country. The island is surrounded by a 50-foot containment wall, and the waterways are patrolled by police helicopters. There are no guards inside this city-sized prison, the inmates are left to their own devices, and no inmates ever leave the island once they arrive.

When Air Force One is hijacked while on the way to a peace summit and the President of the United States is stranded on the island, the police commissioner makes a deal with Snake Plissken, a Special Forces veteran who has been sentenced to the island after attempting to rob the Federal Reserve. If Snake can rescue the President within 24 hours, then he will be given an official pardon and allowed to go free. Snake stealthily lands on the island, and begins his search, but the clock is ticking, and a murderous gang, led by The Duke, has other plans for their hostage.

John Carpenter's 1981 dystopian thriller, Escape from New York, left quite an impression on me when I saw it on HBO during my childhood, because several of the plot developments seemed quite nihilistic to my young self. Snake Plissken, as played by Kurt Russell (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China), is one of cinema's greatest antiheroes, and I was taken aback by several of his decisions when I first saw the film all those years ago. One sequence, where he calmly ignores a lady in distress, unsettled me quite a bit back then. My initial bewilderment notwithstanding, I still considered Snake to be one of the coolest action characters whom I had ever seen. During subsequent viewings of the film as I grew up, I realized that Snake was created by Carpenter as an embodiment of disenfranchised Vietnam veterans and that this film, as a whole, was written as a reaction to Vietnam, the Watergate Scandal, and other such news stories from the era that led to increased public cynicism and to an increased distrust of the government.

Escape from New York benefits from a dynamite supporting cast. Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) is tough and ice-cold as the police commissioner, and his early interactions with Russell are a highlight of the film. The always-amazing Ernest Borgnine (Marty, The Wild Bunch) stars as an inmate who survives Manhattan by driving a cab. The late great Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Paris, Texas), whom I have always thought of as one of cinema's coolest actors, appears as Brain, an advisor to The Duke, who is played by none other than Isaac Hayes. Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Atkins, both of whom appeared in Carpenter's The Fog, are welcome additions, as is another Carpenter stalwart, Donald Pleasence (Halloween). Be on the lookout for the beautiful Season Hubley (Elvis, Hardcore) in a brief early scene on the prison island.

John Carpenter's score lends an eerie urgency to the proceedings, and the synth music recalls the director's soundtrack work with his earlier gang film, Assault on Precinct 13. The cinematography of Dean Cundey (Halloween, The Fog, The Thing) gives the nighttime cityscapes of Manhattan Island a dark mystique.

I've returned to Escape from New York a great many times over the years, and the final shots of Snake always leave a smile on my face.

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