Written by: John Carpenter & Nick Castle
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, and Adrienne Barbeau
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"It's the survival of the human race, Plissken. Something you don't give a shit about."
During the course of his career, John Carpenter has rightfully been hailed for his ability to craft films that are scary, entertaining, or downright cool (often all at once). However, he’s never really received credit for being one of our great angry filmmakers—sometimes, his films are so cool that it’s easy to miss that they originate from a place of deep distrust and indignation. As befits a filmmaker who found his voice in the shadow of Watergate, Carpenter often surveyed the landscape and found ineffectual authority figures and crumbling institutions. Two of his earliest efforts—Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween—reflected the growing suspicion that America—both its inner cities and its suburbs—could never truly be safe again.
Moving into the 80s did little to dull these instincts: if anything, the likes of Escape from New York only provided a bigger staging ground for his preoccupation with doom. A logical extension of his early career threads, the film imagines America in full decay, with one its great cities reduced to a husk and given over to a militarized police state. A year later, Carpenter would kick off his informal “Apocalypse Trilogy” with The Thing, but Escape from New York feels like a nihilistic prelude for the end-times: set in a world that’s not yet completely lost, yet certainly on the threshold of hell.
Of course, it’s also one of Carpenter’s most deceptively cool films, so it immediately hooks viewers with a great, pulsing theme song that announces an apparent swagger. Suddenly, a bleak synopsis informs us that the near future (1997) is a dystopic wasteland where the United States has transformed Manhattan into its lone maximum security prison. Into this wasteland saunters Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), immediately identifiable as a badass: grizzled, unshaven, wears an eyepatch as an accessory for the obvious look of disdain. Set to serve a life sentence for a botched bank robbery but apparently nonchalant about his fate, he quickly becomes Carpenter’s avatar of a world turned upside down: for all his transgressions, Plissken not only emerges as the film’s hero but also its moral compass.
Cribbing once again from the Western films of his youth, Carpenter blurs the line between criminal and authorities when the United States presses Snake (a former decorated soldier) back into duty with a proposition he can hardly refuse. After Air Force One is hijacked, the president (Donald Pleasence) is stranded within the island prison. If Snake can rescue him within 24 hours, his sentence will be commuted and all his crimes pardoned. Instinctively, he bristles before accepting, but only after noting that he “doesn’t give a fuck” about this president or the war the country is currently waging.
This is an eternally cool “fuck off” moment, but, as it turns out, he might not be alone in at least half of that sentiment since the president himself is actually expendable. All that really matters is a briefcase containing a crucial tape recording for an upcoming summit. What’s really important is that America saves some kind of public face in a horrifying dystopia that imagines Cold War era politics will endure well into the next decade (and was Carpenter really that far off?). Plissken might be entering a snake-pit in Manhattan, but he’s already surrounded by cold-blooded reptiles wearing bureaucrats’ suits.
Carpenter’s distrust of the government is most obvious in its shady dealings with Plissken, particularly in the way it injects him with a lethal poison that will activate within 24 hours—all unbeknownst to him, of course, until the administering doctor reveals the truth. Most tales that pair cops and criminals will at least maintain the former’s decency (and indeed Carpenter kept it mostly intact himself in Precinct 13), but Escape from New York dismisses the notion. For all his sneering contempt, Snake Plissken is a better man than his handlers, including the president himself, infused with a subversive shiftiness by Pleasence. When Air Force One is plunging to the ground, he doesn’t hesitate to shuffle himself off to an escape pod and doesn’t give so much as a cursory glance to those about to die in a fiery crash.
With Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, Carpenter at least seemed to hold out hope that something was worth preserving, be it a ramshackle police force or Haddonfield’s innocence. In Escape from New York, the outlook is much bleaker: Snake Plissken is an old gunslinger wandering into a desolate, chaotic frontier with few redeeming qualities. Carpenter—whose fondness for Westerns is well-noted—looks especially to the works of John Ford and notably echoes a moment from The Searchers. In many ways, Escape from New York is Carpenter’s riff on that seminal Western with its sweltering pessimism amplified: his version of Ethan Edwards would definitely shoot this film’s Debbie Edwards if Snake didn’t need the president alive. Where Ford finds some measure of solace (even as his hero remains alone, forever framed by a doorway he’ll never enter), Carpenter’s outlaw only revels in chaos. He doesn’t even get a doorway.
Less John Wayne (Russell would get that shot later, in Big Trouble in Little China) and more Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Snake Plissken embodies both the film’s cool exterior and its simmering rage. Russell’s face—marked with antipathy and a constant smirk—says more than much of his gravelly dialogue. He’s the laconic badass who seems less exasperated by the difficulty of his task and more irritated by its very existence: you sense that he’d rather be anywhere else than in the service of a bunch of feeble masters (including Lee Van Cleef, one of the frontier’s great blackhats, here coopted and working for The Man), fighting a cause he doesn’t believe in, much less care for. There might not be a better post-Vietnam hero than Snake Plissken, a highly decorated soldier who has become disenchanted with his own country. Many wrongfully presume him to be dead, but he’s most certainly the ghost of America’s conscience.
Like Ford, Carpenter sets his cowboy against widescreen landscapes, only his vistas don’t dwarf Plissken so much as they suffocate him. While the budget here is bigger than any afforded to Carpenter at this point in his career, there’s still a gritty, shoe-string quality that’s appropriate given the post-apocalyptic milieu, where abandoned cars and dying fires dot the otherwise empty streets. Paradoxically one of his biggest yet most intimate films all at once, Carpenter doesn’t let Escape from New York get away from him: it might feature elaborate special effects and an expansive setting, but it remains a searing, claustrophobic vision of the future, one where the inmates have taken over the asylum and have arguably proven to be better caretakers . Carpenter even stages the sparse, economic action sequences on an intimate level with frequent close-ups accented by medium shots. Panavision grandeur and spectacle aren’t as important as emphasizing the suffocating surroundings. Besides Snake himself, this bombed out New York City—teeming with a colorful assortment of freaks and forever looming with a menacing, unlit skyline—is the most enduring character here.
If Carpenter finds anything worth saving within the city walls, it’s the rugged sense of Western camaraderie between not only Snake and his trio of accomplices (Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton, all top-notch personalities) but also the inmates as a whole. Even those in the court of the Duke (Isaac Hayes, magnificent and with a boss theme song any Western “villain” deserves) have carved out some sort of meager brotherhood: they might amuse themselves with brutal death-matches, but, on the whole, their scene feels more authentic and lively than their captors, who remain huddled in dark rooms, perpetually hunched over surveillance monitors.
After Snake’s rescue mission proves to be successful, he demands the President to answer for the lives of the companion he lost. It’s another rare moment where Snake articulates his disdain with words, and it's only met with a dismissive shrug: minutes away from delivering a speech, the President has no answer beyond platitudes, just as a series of real-life world leaders failed to truly make sense out of an increasingly chaotic world. Nixon may have never brandished a machine gun like a wild-eyed Pleasence does here, but few images in Escape from New York summarize the deranged morass from which it sprung as well as that one. Once he stares it in the eye, Plissken responds in the only way he knows how: by glowering off into the dead of night (notably not the sunset) with an anarchic intent, utterly disgusted by the scene, yet content in sabotaging everything he just helped to preserve. Maybe the human race would be better off with a reset button. Never has Carpenter been more effortlessly cool and righteously pissed off all at once.
Despite several iterations on home video, Escape From New York hasn’t received a definitive North American Blu-ray release—until now. Unsurprisingly, it’s Scream Factory doing the honors with a 2-disc collector’s edition featuring a newly re-mastered transfer, plus a ton of extras both old and new. With the exception of a few fluff supplements related to a decade-old comic book, most of the extras from the 2003 Collector’s Edition DVD finally make the leap to Blu-ray. Highlights here include an audio commentary with Russell and Carpenter, another track with Debra Hill and Joe Alves, and “Return to Escape from New York,” a 23-minute vintage EPK piece. The opening bank robbery scene—which Carpenter wisely cut, but you can bet any ill-advised redux won’t be able to resist—also returns alongside the usual assortment of promotional material (photo galleries and trailers).
Newly included here is a new commentary track with Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey, a look at the special effects via interviews with Dennis Shotak and Robert Shotak, an interview with co-composer Alan Howarth, plus interviews with On Set With John Carpenter author Kim Gottlieb, filmmaker David DeCoteau, and actor Joe Unger. As usual, it’s housed in a reversible cover that gives customers a choice between newly commissioned artwork and the vintage poster design. All other editions of Escape from New York are certainly disposable at this point, as this one is quite thorough.
With its release, Scream Factory has completed its curation of another informal Carpenter trilogy: along with Assault and They Live, Escape from New York forms a loose series of urban Westerns concerned with meting out justice on deceptive, dystopian frontiers where the cowboys wear hats in shades of grey. That Carpenter never directed a traditional Western seems irrelevant considering he pushed the genre to its logical, apocalyptic extreme anyway.
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