John Carpenter wrote the screenplay for Escape from New York in the mid-1970s, but wasn't able to get it made until 1981 (studio executives felt it was too dark and violent... then saw how much money Carpenter's Halloween made and quickly changed their tune). Had the movie been produced a little earlier, more people might have seen it for what it was: an angry response to a corrupt, heartless American government. If the years following WWII produced a lot of movies that were bleak and cynical, the years following Vietnam and Watergate produced a lot of movies that were bleak, cynical and vengeful: Death Wish, Taxi Driver, First Blood, etc. Escape from New York certainly belongs in the latter category, but that element often gets overlooked due to the fact that the film also belongs in a category with other visionary sci-fi portraits of the future: Metropolis, Blade Runner, Dark City... good company, to be sure. Whether you come for the political punch, the rich production design or the badass swagger of Kurt Russell's performance, Carpenter's film is a riveting experience.
The movie begins in 1997, which technically dates the film at this point but also demonstrates the tale's deep-rooted cynicism: as far as Carpenter was concerned, the world wasn't too far away from turning into a hellish, inhumane police state. The entire island of Manhattan has been transformed into a massive maximum security prison of sorts: criminals are thrown in and left to form their own society. Naturally, that society is a barbaric one, and a particularly ruthless figure known as The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes, Shaft) has proclaimed himself... well, The Duke of New York.
In the “civilized” world, the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance, Prince of Darkness) is in the process of hammering out a complicated peace treaty between the United States, Russia and China. However, en route to the summit, Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists. Rather than taking a cue from future movie president James Marshall, Pleasance jumps into his escape pod and makes a hasty exit before the plane crashes. Alas, he lands right in the middle of Manhattan, where he's quickly found by The Duke's minions. While the U.S. government certainly has the manpower required to take on the prison population of Manhattan, they dare not risk further endangering the President's life. A quieter sort of rescue mission must be staged.
New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef, For a Few Dollars More) knows the perfect man for the job. Former U.S. Special Forces soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, Death Proof) has just been arrested for attempting to rob the Federal Reserve and is currently preparing to spend the rest of his life in Manhattan. Hauk makes Plissken an offer: if Plissken can rescue the President within 24 hours, he'll be given a full pardon and permitted to return to civilian life.
Most of the action in Escape from New York takes place at night, and Carpenter's portrait of Manhattan feels eerily persuasive – a portrait of what might happen if America were subjected to humanity's basest instincts for a few years. Yes, the prisoners live in a world of violent anarchy, but the bulk of the blame lies with the government: all attempts at reform have been abandoned in favor of a far more pitiless approach. Why bother dealing with problematic human beings when you can just throw them away and pretend they don't exist? It's a world shrouded in darkness both thematically and literally, with the light of Plisskin's matches occasionally allowing his face to emerge from the shadows.
It's telling that Plissken once worked for the American government, and now is facing a life sentence for attempting to rob the American government. Here is a man who feels betrayed by his country, and who feels resentful toward nearly everyone involved in his current situation: the self-serving president, the cold-blooded police commissioner, the savage prisoners – Plissken feels these people aren't worth serving or saving. Russell bases his performance on Clint Eastwood and growls his terse, tough lines with persuasive resentfulness, but there's something else Russell offers that can't be found in Harry Callahan or The Man With No Name: a deep, unyielding sadness. His eyes often betray his words. We don't know much about Plissken's past, but we know that he's a man whose heart is broken.
Russell anchors the movie, but Carpenter surrounds him with a terrific mix of seasoned character actors. Harry Dean Stanton (Repo Man) is “Brain,” one of those prison movie characters who can find a way to get you anything you need. Ernest Borgnine (Marty) pops up as a cheerful cab driver, and Adrianne Barbeau (The Fog) plays a female prisoner tough enough to hold her own against any of the guys (one brief early scene demonstrates that this prison – while hellish for everyone - can be a particularly brutal place for women). Van Cleef is terrific as the sneering police commissioner, while Donald Pleasance manages to be both hilarious and repulsive as the spineless President. Isaac Hayes' work as The Duke does more with less – he seems frightening not because of anything in particular he does, but because of the atmosphere of awe and terror the film builds around him. Finally, Frank Doubleday (Assault on Precinct 13) turns a potentially forgettable peripheral character into an instantly memorable one – a hissing henchman whose physical movement suggests a demon-possessed Peter Pan.
Carpenter directs the film's handful of action sequences with precision and energy, but the tone of the movie often run closer to the horror genre. The movie is less about big, sustained action setpieces (though it has a couple) and more about those fleeting, savage moments in which somebody's luck finally runs out. The pulsating score (co-written by Carpenter and his frequent collaborator Alan Howarth) sets the tone perfectly, covering the melodic heroism of its memorable main theme with chilly, sterile synth arrangements. There's a ticking-clock steadiness to many of the score's rhythms, perpetually reminding us that time is running out for Plissken (mostly due to an ingenious plot device Carpenter introduces early on).
Escape from New York is my favorite Carpenter flick, partially due to the fact that it represents the director at the peak of his creative powers and partially due to the way it keeps revealing new depths each time I revisit it. The first time I saw the film (on a cheap black-and-white television my family owned), I was struck by its instantly intriguing premise and the similarly compelling Plissken character. Later, I began to see much more than that. It's an undeniably “cool” movie and an entertaining sci-fi action flick, but look closer and you'll see the heartbreak, anger and disillusionment coursing through its veins. What good is a peace treaty between countries that don't care about their people?
Escape from New York
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 1981