Escape from New York Review
With more recent missteps such as 'Ghosts of Mars' and 'Village of the Damned' still leaving a bitter taste in the mouth, it's somewhat difficult to imagine a halcyon time when John Carpenter was a name synonymous with some of the most imaginative and effective films American popular cinema had to offer. Only the most hardened Carpenter aficionado could contest that his body of work from the nineties onward offers anything other than crushing disappointment, however it's a testament to the quality of his earlier output that every new project is greeted with a hushed anticipation that this could maybe be the one to finally snap him out of freefall. When assessing Carpenter's position in the pantheon of great modern genre directors it's par for the course to look at timeless pieces of work such as 'Halloween' (which for good or bad spawned the slasher as we know it), 'The Thing', and 'The Fog' to name but three. Of course Carpenter wasn't all about horror, and even nigh-on 25 years after its release 'Escape from New York' still delivers the goods on the action front, and stands as one of the crowning achievements in his directorial canon. This futuristic adventure, set in the then distant 1997, sees America overcome with rapid surges in crime. The government's answer is to turn the entire Manhattan area of New York into one giant maximum security prison, walled off from the outside world. Inside these walls there are no guards or enforced regimes, the criminals do as they see fit and live in their own constructed metropolis safely away from the population at large. Air Force One, carrying the President (Donald Pleasance) to a crucial peace summit, finds itself hijacked by a terrorist cell and crash lands within the walls of the prison. With the President trapped and in grave danger, Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) enlists the help of newly convicted convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) in a dangerous rescue bid, with the promise of a full government pardon should he return the President safely. Unfortunately for Snake, villainous prison kingpin The Duke (Isaac Hayes) has other ideas, and intends to hold the President at ransom to engineer an escape bid himself. The film was made at a time when Carpenter could do no wrong and it shows. 'Escape From New York' stands as one of the director's most accomplished cinematic efforts, and certainly one of his most extravagant. Always a sucker for the classic American western ('Assault on Precinct 13' was his 'Rio Bravo' for the urban age), here Carpenter has the confidence and experience to fully indulge its classic iconography on a grand scale. Of course it helps when you have posse composed from a cast to die for. The then little-known Russell gives a career defining performance as Plisskin, the classical anti-hero, forever stamping his authority on the character. He is more than ably supported by a stellar cast including Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasance, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes and Adrienne Barbeau (complete with gratuitously pneumatic cleavage). The doomed township on its way to hell is wonderfully composed, belying the film's modest budget. The dark apocalyptic setting of deserted city streets are evocative and effectively creepy, showing just what a visually arresting director Carpenter in his prime can be. His much favoured 2.35:1 ratio again serves him well, perfectly conjuring up the sensation of a vast sprawling metropolitan maze, where danger lurks round every corner. The use of light and shadow is superb here. This may well be Carpenter's most aesthetically realised film, packed to the gills with memorable and iconic imagery. The musical score too is classic Carpenter, those crude artisan synths which so effectively chill the blood are in perfect keeping with the tone of the movie. It's a credit to the quality of the film that the rudimentary special effects never become an issue. Of course we could easily sit and pick holes with the dated interpretation of the future, or the occasionally ropey sfx. There is no need however. The film so overpowers the viewer, keeps them glued to the storyline, that these factors do not even come into play. The film succeeds because Carpenter plays it fast and hard. If there is such a slim sub-genre as “80's futuristic action noir” then this and 'Bladerunner' carry the torch. This is a dark and unrelenting ride, with a steely urban grit to the film that recalls Walter Hill's earlier classic 'The Warriors' given a futuristic facelift. Characters are mercilessly dispatched without a drawn out emotional death bed speech to be heard. There are no good guys to be seen here, the difference between the criminals and the law is characterised not by a moral code, but by a giant concrete wall. To compare this to the disastrous sequel Carpenter helmed in the mid-nineties is like night and day. There is none of the quip-tastic cabaret which sunk 'Escape from L.A.'. 'Escape from New York' is bad to the bone, and is all the better for it. I can't tell you how refreshing it is, after years of diluted Hollywood schtick, to revisit a film such as this. A film that doesn't pander to the lowest denominator. On the face of it the film is ludicrous. Isaac Hayes drives a battered old Lincoln with chandeliers on the bonnet. Kurt Russell fights a big fat man with a huge moustache using a trash can lid as a weapon. Ernest Borgnine tears around the streets in a bright yellow taxi cab wearing a silly hat. Yet somehow it works. It's all played so strait-laced we never stop to consider the inherent craziness of the setup, and instead are taken away by the thrill ride. Carpenter doesn't bore us with romance, patronise us with a black and white morality code, or over expose with elaborate back story. This film is a machine, a straight laced actioner which does exactly what it says on the tin, and doesn't disappoint. It's the best non-horror film the guy has made period, and long may it live on. Now John, don't you think it's about time you got back to basics and made another decent flick?