Country: United States
Genre: Action/Science Fiction
Director: John Carpenter
WORTH A LOOK
I remember seeing Escape From New York when it came out in 1981, and even then, it had the energy of a dead battery. Normally, it’s not a film I would care to revisit, but it happened to be on a quadrupal bill of trash cinema at my local cinema palace, the Castro Theater, and I was already in the audience, so I thought I would give it a second chance.
I’ve got to give director John Carpenter some credit. It takes a lot of balls to make a futuristic science fiction movie with a budget of six million dollars. That’s about what it looked like it cost, too. Carpenter stretched production value by shooting in St Louis, parts of which were a ghost town, then and now. For the chase scene at the end of the film, Zack Carlson, one of the programmers at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, informed us that Carpenter bought the bridge that it was shot on from the city of St. Louis for one dollar and then sold it back to them for one dollar at the end of the shoot.
But actually, the low budget look of Escape From New York is not the real problem. It’s pacing. The movie drags, much like Carpenter’s first opus, Halloween, did.
Watching Escape From New York, I don’t know how John Carpenter managed to pull off his masterpiece, The Thing, the following year — I really don’t.
Oh, yeah, the plot. In 1997 (you can chuckle here), the island of Manhattan, New York is the only prison in the United States, surrounded by a wall, manned with soldiers who kill anyone attempting to escape. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, in a career changing performance) is about to be sent there for robbing the Federal Bank. While he’s being processed, Air Force One crashes inside the prison with the Prez on board, natch. Plissken is offered a pardon if he can rescue the President (Donald Pleasence) within 22 hours. There are reasons given for the countdown of course, but the real reason is the ticking clock that adds suspense.
Escape From New York isn’t horribly written. Writers John Carpenter and Nick Castle don’t make things easy for Snake. They also refuse to make Snake cuddly. He starts mean and he stays mean, which is commendable. Castle and Carpenter aim for a comic book look and feel and nail it.
Isaac Hayes makes an effective villain as the the Duke of New York. He’s introduced via his Caddilac, on which the hood is decorated with chandeliers, a nice touch. Ernest Borgnine is surreal as Cabbie, who seemingly stepped out of a 50s time warp. I kind of got a kick out of him.
Really, Escape From New York ain’t all bad. There’s a fight between Snake and some behemoth in a boxing ring using nail studded clubs as weapons that’s kind of fun. And I like the moment when Snake is hoisted halfway up the prison wall and left to hang there while the Duke takes leisurely aim with a machine gun. Best of all is Snake’s final “screw you” to The Man.
But the main point is that Escape From New York is supposed to be a thriller, and it just doesn’t have the headlong rush I associate with the genre. Its plods along, which is kind of amazing considering that Escape From New York is only 99 minutes long. Part of the problem is the music score by Carpenter himself, a study in forced inertia. Thank goodness Carpenter hired a real film composer, Ennio Morricone, for his next movie, The Thing.
In the end, I’ll give Escape From New York the benefit of a doubt and say 2 1/2 stars.
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