Escape from New York (1981)

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Director: John Carpenter

Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef & Ernest Borgnine

Review Author: Shaun

Rating: 5/5 shots of Tequila

Watching the new Guardians film sent me down a rabbit-hole of Kurt Russell films with one standing out amongst the rest (hint: it’s in the title)! John Carpenter crafts an excellent landscape in the futuristic action movie Escape From New York and populates it with a whole host of colourful, entertaining and menacing characters that make this movie a blast from start to finish.

Set in 1997 (the movie was released in 1981), Manhattan is a maximum security prison surrounded by a 50 foot wall. All the inmates are serving a life sentence, forcing them to live in a world they make for themselves. The President of America crash-lands in New York when Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists on the way to a peace summit with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The leader of the inmates, the Duke of New York, captures the President and plans to use him to bargain for his and his cronies freedom.

Meanwhile, a former war hero turned criminal, Snake Plissken has been arrested while trying to rob the Federal Reserve in Denver, Colorado and has been sentenced to life in New York. New York Warden Bob Hauk offers Plissken a deal – In return for rescuing the President within 24 hours, he will issue Snake with a full pardon for the crimes he has committed. Snake reluctantly agrees, but Hauk injects him with two microcapsules that will explode in his neck if Snake does not return with the president.

What really makes this movie for me is the grim visualization of the future, particularly New York. This movie looks and feels like an apocalyptic nightmare, New York is decayed and desolate. This grunged-up city is a character in itself and really brings this movie to life. The model work done of the city is fantastic and still looks great today. The film is dark from start to finish which is a great reflection of the plot. Interestingly most of the lighting in the city shots is natural lighting.

John Carpenter builds a perfect dystopian world for the violence and action to be justified. Carpenter wrote the story with Nick Castle which sets itself apart from the forgettable humdrum action films of the early  80’s with a memorable protagonist. The character of Snake Plissken is a true anti-hero, he has been arrested for a robbery and has no remorse, he has no respect for the law and only agrees to rescue the president because his own life is on the line, yet the audience is still rooting for the character throughout.

Snake Plissken is played by Kurt Russell, who has worked with Carpenter on many projects. Russell really takes this character to another level and makes it his own. His nonchalant mannerisms and reactions, his attitude to authority and his physicality are all emphasized by Russell’s performance. Snake is a man who’s actions speak louder than words and although he was not the first lone anti-hero (Mad Max, Man With No Name) he is one of the best. He simply doesn’t care!

As well as Snake, there is a whole host of colourful and interesting characters within this crazy world. Isaac Hayes plays the Duke of New York. Hayes embodies the Duke and really seems to relish playing him, the only crime he committed was not getting enough screen time. Cabbie, played by Ernest Borgnine, is fun even for some slight comic relief in his over-the-top performance of a New York cab driver. Lee Van Cleef is Bob Hauk, the head of New York penitentiary. Hauk is another dark and brooding character, closely related to Snake as both have a military background and are war heroes. The dialogue between the two characters is arguably some of the best in the whole movie. Veteran Donald Pleasance plays the president in a stellar performance. I love his final scenes in this movie at the prison wall.

Two of my favourite characters are Brain played by Harry Dean Stanton and Maggie played by Adrienne Barbeau. Brain and Snake have history and it really helps to give depth to the world. Only a few muttered lines about a previous incident is enough to really flesh out the history of the characters. Maggie, the Brain’s squeeze, is a very strong character in her own right. She is headstrong and determined but devoted to Brain. I thought her character had a great story arc and a satisfying conclusion.

A mention needs to be given to the music in the movie. Carpenter composes (or co-composes) the music for most of his movies himself which I think tells you a lot about the passion this guy has for the movies he makes. You can generally tell if a movie has been done by Carpenter simply by the standard and quality of the soundtrack. Escape From New York is no exception. Carpenter has a distinctive synthesizer sound which is very fitting for this film. His distinctive sound definitely helps to set this film apart.

Overall I think this movie is a fantastic piece of escapist cinema. It delivers a group of compelling characters that are put into an impossible situation. I love the darkness and the bleak outlook that this movie presents. Anyone with any interest in science fiction, post-apocalyptic or action/adventure movies seriously need to watch this if you haven’t already done so. An excellent film which still holds up today.

Let us know what you thought of it over on @ReelTimeFlicks on Twitter.

5 responses to “Escape from New York (1981)

  1. This is one of my favorite post apocalyptic movies. As you say, the setting itself really feels like a nightmare. But Kurt Russell is absolutely amazing in his role as Snake. The sequel Escape from LA, though not as good as the original, is still enjoyable enough. Really cool that you put the spotlight on this classic film. Great post 😀

    Liked by 1 person

      • The interrogation sets a great tone that’s kept throughout the film. It’s basically Pearce being a jerk while shooting up bad guys. Great for sitting back with a beer and letting your brain take a break. 🙂

        Like

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