Thursday, 5 July 2018
Escape from New York (1981)
This is a prison that nobody ever leaves. Once you’re there you’re there for life. There are no guards on the island. The prisoners can do whatever the hell they like. Nobody cares. The whole island is surrounded by walls, minefields, sophisticated surveillance system, helicopter patrols, you name it. No-one has managed to escape. Escape truly is impossible.
But in this story the problem is that first it’s going to be necessary not to break out but to break into the prison, and then get out again. The reason it’s necessary to get in is that the President of the United States is there. His plane was hijacked by urban terrorists. Not only that, the President has with him an incredibly vital recording and that recording is going to be needed within 24 hours at a major international conference. The fate of the world depends on that recording. Which means there’s a time limit. The President has to be extracted and it has to be done within 24 hours.
And it can’t be done by conventional means because the President has fallen into the hands of some very nasty people and if they see a single helicopter or a single soldier trying to mount a rescue mission they’ll kill the President immediately.
The man in charge of the prison is Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) and he has a plan. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is a slightly psychotic ex-special forces guy turned bank robber and he’s about to be sent to the Manhattan Prison. Hauk offers him a full pardon if he can get the President out. The task is impossible but Snake Plissken may just be mean enough and crazy enough to pull it off.
Needless to say there’s a fair amount of mayhem once Snake is infiltrated into the prison (by glider). Snake manages to accumulate a number of allies. They’re vicious and/or entirely untrustworthy but that doesn’t bother Snake. What matters is that they may be useful to him. These allies include Cabby (Ernest Borgnine) who seems to be New York’s only surviving cab driver, and also Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). Brain is a kind of scientific advisor to the self-appointed Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).
There’s plenty of violence and it can get fairly brutal at times although it’s not as extreme as you might expect. There’s certainly no actual gore.
The acting is a major strength of the film. Kurt Russell is terrific as the totally amoral totally ruthless Snake, a man more cut out to be a villain but in the insane and evil world of the movie he’s the closest thing there is to a hero. Snake just doesn’t care about anything, which is why he has a chance of succeeding. Lee Van Cleef as Hauk is pretty similar to Snake. He’s ruthless and amoral but he happens to be, technically at least, one of the good guys. Isaac Hayes is suitably malevolent. Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton both put plenty of enthusiasm into their performances.
Donald Pleasence plays the President. He’s also technically one of the good guys, and he’s also in reality just as ruthless and amoral as Snake Plissken. The only difference is that being a politician he adds hypocrisy to the mix of endearing personality features.
The movie was made on a budget of around six-and-a-half million dollars. That was a lot more than Carpenter’s previous films but Escape from New York is an insanely ambitious movie for such a budget. The extraordinary thing is that visually it works, and works very well indeed. The special effects were done ultra cheaply and they look splendid. The whole look of the movie is dark and sinister and incredibly hostile. The visual style has been copied countless times since.
This is a move made entirely with old school special effects. Everything is done with animation, or miniatures, or matte paintings or the other techniques that pre-dated CGI. When you take this, and the low budget, into consideration Carpenter’s achievement really is phenomenal. This movie is an object lesson in what you can achieve visually with talent, imagination and hard work.
Insofar as the movie has a message it seems to be that the only thing that does more harm to society than out-of-control violence is out-of-control law enforcement. The world of Escape from New York is a complete moral vacuum. When men like Snake Plissken and Hauk look like heroes you have a society that has a lot of problems. This is a fairly bleak dystopian tale. What’s interesting is that we don’t get any glimpses of what “normal” society looks like.
I’m not saying that it’s all that profound in the political and social points it makes. It does have a fair amount of leftover 70s cynicism and paranoia. At least we don’t get any speeches.
The Region 4 Special Edition DVD comes with a pleasing swag of extras including two audio commentaries. The really good news is that one of the commentary tracks features John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. There’s nothing more enjoyable than hearing Carpenter and Russell talking about the movies they made together.
This movie is stylish and it’s fun and it was a definite hit. There would be lots of violent action movies made in the following couple of decades but Escape from New York has a bit more class than most of them, and Snake Plissken as played by Kurt Russell is one of the great action heroes. Highly recommended.