1980s, 3/4, Action, Adventure, John Carpenter, Review

Escape from New York

Escape from New York (1981) - IMDb

#8 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.

There are three movies I most closely associate with my father, The Hunt for Red October, The Great Escape, and Escape from New York. Of the three, I still unabashedly love the first two, but my affection for the third has diminished over the years. I still enjoy it, finding it an entertaining 100 minutes worthy of recommendation, but it also ends up feeling like a lesser Carpenter work, which isn’t what I really expected to see when I decided to do this retrospective. This movie is weird, and it’s weird in certain ways that kind of rub me the wrong way.

In the distant future of 1997 New York City has been turned into the maximum-security prison for the criminal element of America. Walled off and monitored from Liberty Island, the City has become a self-contained society of criminality. Into this flies Air Force One, overtaken by terrorists, crashing into a building with the president (Donald Pleasence) escaping in a pod into the city below. The president gets captured by the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) with the threat to kill him if any rescue is attempted. With a ticking clock because of a summit meeting the president was going to involving China and the Soviet Union, the police commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) uses the best tool he has to go in clandestinely, Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken.

Snake is the center of this movie, and Kurt Russell makes him a wonderful anchor for everything that happens around him. Channeling Clint Eastwood, in particular the Man with No Name, Snake is the epitome of John Carpenter’s cynical nihilism. A former decorated Army lieutenant who decided to rob the Federal Reserve in Colorado, Snake has no concern for what’s going on around him. His complete dismissiveness at Hauk’s offer to save the president is endemic of a generation made cynical by Watergate, seeing nothing worthwhile to save but his own skin, is what ends up making him appealing in this kind of dungy world that Carpenter made real by visiting East St. Louis and filming it. Snake never cares about the mission he has as anything other than a vehicle for his own freedom. He never really connects with anyone, and the man he goes in to explicitly save is as little concerned with Snake as Snake is with him. Snake just wants to get back before his twenty-three hour clock is up and the tiny explosives in his neck go off.

I think that’s a great place to center a film, but the problems arise around him, especially in how the story is actually built. The movie doesn’t seem to have much in terms of actual structure, and after Snake flies his glider into New York, landing on top of the World Trade Center, the story doesn’t really seem to have any direction. Snake finds the president’s locator beacon on a bum, and he goes and sits down, unsure of what on earth to do next. And yet, at the same time, while this construction feels weird at best, there is something going on at the same time that feels worthwhile, the world building. The introduction of the “crazies” that rule the sewar system, coming up out onto the street because it’s the end of the month and they’re out of food, is interesting. Could it have been included into Snake’s story better? I think so, but it’s far from worthless.

Along the way, Snake meets Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie, and if Cabbie were played by anyone other than Borgnine, I think I’d hate the character. Borgnine brings such a sunny and warm personality to Cabbie, the New York cabbie who’s been driving that very same cab for thirty years and comes to Snakes inexplicable rescue not once, but twice, throughout the film. He’s loud and brash and disappears from the movie when he feels threatened, but I just find Borgnine’s energy and positive attitude every moment he’s on screen to be a breath of fresh air in a movie filled with such cynical nihilism.

Cabbie takes Snake to see Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), the Duke’s scientist, of sorts. Snake, who happens to know Brain (Harold is his real name), threatens to kill both Brain and his girl Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) if they don’t show him to the president. And at about the halfway point of the film. Snake gets to the president, held up in a train car, and immediately gets captured. The story then grinds to a halt as Snake sleeps through the night, after having caught an arrow in the leg, the Duke tortures the president a bit, and Brain tries to figure out how Snake got into the city, eventually figuring it out, deciding he needs the president to ensure his safety if he were to steal the glider. The Duke pits Snake in a gladiatorial bout as a show for his people, and I’ve always been a fan of this sequence.

None of this feels like it fits into how to tell a story, even a weird one about New York becoming a prison and the president needing a rescue, but, as I’ve said, there are consistent entertainments to be had. The fight is one of those. Snake, injured and unsure of where he is, takes the weapons give to him (a baseball bat and then another baseball bat with nails) and makes the most of his situation against his much stronger and larger opponent. His ultimate victory ends up winning the crowd to his side. It’s not exactly a hugely emotionally swelling moment, but it is a satisfying one, seeing our anti-hero triumph in a physical battle.

The movie then moves headfirst into its finale with Brain having stolen the president away, getting to the top of the World Trade Center, losing the glider, and Snake catching up. Cornered by the Duke when they get back to the ground, they are rescued by Cabbie who…just…drives up randomly. I can talk about how oddly the movie’s structure feels, but Cabbie’s two magical appearances to save Snake’s life and help move the movie forward (including him having the tape the president had been carrying but had been taken from him by the Duke right when it was most needed) make him feel like a last minute bit of narrative adhesive thrown together in a later draft to get our characters from one place to another. See, if played by almost anyone other than Borgnine, Cabbie would outright anger me because of his mechanical uses in getting the plot moving.

The finale also feels too easy, driving over a mined 69th Street Bridge and only hitting a few mines along the way, either having no impact or killing minor characters. The cynical disconnect with anything also prevents any kind of emotional response as these characters begin to die off, and I’m not sure if that’s the point or not. Were we supposed to find worth in these people, these common people who are all dying to help the president, worth enough that we would bemoan their loses? Or are we supposed to be completely cynical through it all and feel nothing because they’re just meat? I think the movie tries to create this balance between the two, and I don’t think it quite lands it.

All of that being said, I really do find this film consistently entertaining. The acting is solid all around, especially from Russell and Pleasence. Cleef has fun with his role, and Borgnine makes what would be an awful character fun. The use of the real world locations in East St. Louis provide the film the right kind of ugly realism it needs in order to as fully accomplish Carpenter’s dystopian vision as possible on such a modest budget. It does feel like his reach exceeded his grasp overall, like this is the one movie of his where he really did need a much larger budget to completely realize what his imagination was cooking up. The lack of impact of Air Force One’s crash is probably the chief effect that really feels missing. Still, I wish this film’s script had another couple of drafts to iron stuff out and give it a firmer structure. After its rather great opening, it ends up being more meandering that it probably should be, and I think that diminishes the film’s overall impact and entertainment value.

Rating: 3/4

4 thoughts on “Escape from New York”

  1. For me, this is almost an ideal movie. I almost say ‘perfect’ but it’s not perfect, it has flaws. But it gets so much right that I can forgive them and want to forgive them. It IS a cynical, black movie, very much a child of the 70’s. But if you go into it knowing that, embracing it, it is an amazing film. I want to talk about what it got right:
    1. Casting and performances. Kurt Russell, Isaac Hayes, Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, random street punks 1-100….everyone is 100% committed to their role and knocking it out of the park. Snake Plisken isn’t based on an existing book or comic, he’s a myth created before our eyes, yes he’s a Clint Eastwood impersonation but even Clint never ‘was’ Snake Plissken in any of his roles.
    2. Worldbuilding. You start with the basics, NYC, America’s Crown Jewel (supposedly) has been abandoned, manhattan is a prison, federal police (I remember when that idea was radical and scary) surround it, the bridges are mined. How messed up does the world need to be for this to happen? We see little to nothing of the world outside of Manhattan but there is a feeling of ominous dread, that everything is decaying, almost to apocalyptic levels, but it’s all inferred, not explicitly narrated. It feels like Mad Max and Snake Plissken inhabit the same world.
    3. It all goes wrong. One of the best things you can do in writing action or drama is ask ‘how can it go wrong’ and everything goes wrong from the moment Snake is injected (the tech demands that Plissken be informed then and there) and keeps going wrong to the very end (the wrong tape is played). What we get as a result is Snake having to adapt over and over again. He has countless problems, he has to pay prices, maybe not big prices or important prices, but he alone gets out of New York of all the “allies” he had along the way.
    4. Product design. The setting and props just plain work….for a movie. Visually and esthetically it’s all cool, punk rock, nasty and dangerous. I wanted a Mac 10 with a scope on the suppressor (a terrible idea in real life, just like Han Solo’s blaster being a really stupid design). Sets and costumes are grungy and great for the story.
    5. Pacing. It’s 99 minutes of ticking clock. It could possibly lose 8 or 9 minutes to be perfect but there is very little flab here. Snake is propelled from beat to beat, sometimes artificially and sometimes the beats don’t make narrative sense, but there is something going on all the time and often you have no way of predicting WHAT is going to happen because of point #3.

    Anyway, I could go on and on but that’s enough of me posting walls of text on your webzone. This isn’t John Carpenter’s best work, but it might be its most enduring, thanks to Kurt Russell and Snake Plissken.

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    1. I have a great amount of affection for everything you describe, and it’s what keeps me coming back repeatedly. I just can’t get over some weird story stuff like Cabbie showing up randomly to save Snake twice. I like the weirdness of the world, but I grate on some of the weirdness of the story’s construction.

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