“Escape From New York” impresses with great action sequences, stellar performances, and a still-relevant skewering of 80s politics.
In honor of legendary genre filmmaker John Carpenter’s appearance at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas, Texas, May 26-28, 2023, we’re spending the week honoring some of the Master’s lesser-heralded films. Welcome to John Carpenter Tribute Week!
Escape From New York was something I’d read about in Starburst and Fangoria back when it was released in 1981. I was immediately intrigued. I also remember seeing the film poster at a cinema; the image of the Statue of Liberty decapitated is forever etched in my mind.
I was too young to watch it in the theater and would have to wait until it was out on video. Back then, the wait for that could take ages, or at least that’s how it felt. Time seemed to stretch on and on, and my local video shops didn’t have it on their shelves. I had no idea where I could find it to watch. Thus, it quietly disappeared from my memory.
It was Christmas of 1989 when it finally showed up on network TV.
It sounds strange to those who grew up in the age of streaming and instant gratification. But, back then, unless the broadcast gods were smiling upon you, it could be near impossible to see many of these films. And the wait to discover new horror films touted on the cover of beloved genre magazines could be agonizing.
So, after nearly a decade, was Escape From New York worth the wait? Let’s get into it!
By 1997 (the year the film takes place), rising crime rates across every state in the US had caused special measures to be taken.
The decision is made to wall off Manhattan Island and make it the most maximum-security prison in the world.
Each of the connecting bridges is protected and mined against any potential escapees. Against this backdrop, there is rising conflict with other nations. The President (played by Donald Pleasence) is on his way to a crucial summit to prevent further escalation.
Unfortunately, Air Force One is hijacked as part of a suicide mission, and it crashes into downtown New York.
The President safely evacuates in his escape pod, but his rescue party is not what he was hoping for. The base commander leads a rescue mission only to be halted by a messenger of the Duke of New York with a severed finger and a warning not to try anything else.
At the same time, Snake Plissken (Carpenter muse Kurt Russell), following capture for a failed bank robbery, is due to be interred in Manhattan when he is offered a job: Rescue the President and make it out alive in 24 hours, or it’s the end of everything.
Just to add that touch of urgency and to prevent him from escaping, microscopic explosive charges are implanted. Slowly dissolving, they can only be removed once he returns with the President and his briefcase, containing a cassette tape with information that can end the conflict.
Now, bear in mind that a lot of themes Carpenter explores became almost instant genre tropes.
This includes the anti-hero, a dystopian future, psychopathic gangs, and an overall big boss. The costumes and general design aesthetic would become blueprints for a thousand low-budget knock-offs (films like The Bronx Warriors).
Adding to the impact of the film was the tremendous cast Carpenter assembled.
The success of Halloween and The Fog allowed him to recruit top-tier talent, including the extraordinary Kurt Russell, offering his best Clint Eastwood impression as Snake.
Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, and genre icon Donald Pleasence round out a killer cast who all bring their A-game. It’s no surprise that Pleasence is especially compelling, evolving from a frightened small man to a chest-puffed-out statesman.
As for Russell, I consider this one of his best performances right beside his memorable role in The Thing. I loved him in Big Trouble in Little China, but that was a conscious parody; silly, campy fun. Here, he is utterly believable as someone who has a low opinion of almost everyone he meets but retains a solid moral code (of sorts).
Van Cleef also shines and is given some of the best lines in the film.
The story allows Carpenter to showcase some outstanding set pieces.
One of the most memorable scenes is the initial entry into New York via a glider controlled by Snake, navigating around to land on the roof of the World Trade Centre in an almost silent sequence backed only by the film score. Even the landing isn’t safe. And like everything in this film, it can and will go wrong at any point.
Characters are introduced as we move further into the story without an explanation of who they are or why they are there. We aren’t sure if they are residents who didn’t want to leave once the walls started going up or if they were criminals interred there.
We meet Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), who’s been driving that exact same cab for decades, listening to big band music and knowing where the right or wrong people are. He leads Snak to Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who has prior experience with Snake and a prior job that went wrong.
And finally, we are introduced to the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the number one.
Hayes is on fire here, exuding that magnetic personality and threat of extreme violence at any given moment whose plan is to take the President back, with the population of New York behind him.
There are so many moments that would become permanently etched in genre history, including the insane fight for survival with wrestler Ox Baker sporting some wild back hair and a mustache to boot.
If anything, there is almost too much going on as we move from one epic spectacle to the next.
In the final third act, the supporting cast gets whittled down until we’re left with an explosive showdown between the two heavyweights: Duke and Snake.
It ends on a suitably dark and satisfying note.
Watching Escape From New York for the first time at 14 years of age, after such a long wait, exceeded all my expectations. It was mesmerizing, and the film score — especially the main theme — played on a loop in my head for days after.
Watching it now so many years later, it still holds up — even if we have passed the year of its then-futuristic setting. From a more mature perspective, I can now see how weary Snake is shown during the film and can fully grasp everything that this wicked world represents.
In my humble opinion, this is the last great film by John Carpenter that was truly and fully his. Right after this gem, he made the stunning retelling of The Thing. And though that was an extraordinary cinematic achievement, it was a terrible failure upon its release. I believe that devastating failure changed something in the brilliant Carpenter. His later films seemed to lack that special spark that made his earlier oeuvre so magnificent.
Maybe there was too much expected of Carpenter of all he achieved early in his career. Or maybe he expected too much of himself.
My personal musings aside, Carpenter gifted us with so many timeless treasures, and Escape From New York ranks very high on my list of standouts from the influential filmmaker.