Movie Review: Escape from New York

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A bank robber is enlisted to rescue the President of the United States from the prison that is the island of Manhattan.

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John Carpenter, 1981

When the Air Force One crashes, the President’s (Donald Pleasence) escape pod lands in the worst possible spot: the isle of Manhattan, which has been cut off from the mainland and turned into a maximum security prison. Former soldier and bank robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is chosen for a rescue mission to save both the President and the plans to a new weapon that he holds, and with some considerable persuasion he flies in to the prison. With only 22 hours to track down the President, Snake must locate The Duke (Isaac Hayes), a local crime lord who is holding the President hostage with one demand: to allow the prisoners of the island access to the mainland. He enlists the help of his former friend Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), a man with whom he has a tense relationship, and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). With the help of new friends and the hindrance of new enemies, the trio make their way to The Duke’s stronghold – Grand Central Station.

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As avid readers may be aware, I watched Escape from LA without knowing that it was the sequel out of the two films. Watching New York the day after LA was a very strange experience. LA is everything in New York repeated and magnified. It seems odd to call a film like Escape from New York (or really anything by John Carpenter) restrained, but compared to LA, that’s exactly what it is. The journey to rescue the President from The Duke is much more tense than LA’s, with Hayes’ taciturn monolith The Duke presenting a scary villain. The relationship between Brain and Snake is tense, both actors playing over-the-top characters with genuine, rooted emotions. Adrienne Barbeau gets a lot less to do as Brain’s loyal girlfriend, but she’s tough, at least. And Snake Plissken is less of a caricature in this film, his desperation palpable as he tries to figure out who to trust in the web of crime on Manhattan. The city is used more intelligently, with more real satire – there’s a lovely moment when Snake walks past a vaudeville stage and sees a group of deranged inmates in drag, putting on a show.

Set in the distant future of 1997, the America of this film has seen a 400x rise in the crime rate. The world is bleak and everybody’s grizzled as all get-out. There’s a Western feel to Escape from New York, with stalwarts of the genre like Ernest Borgnine as sidekick Cabbie and Lee Van Cleef as army baddie Hauk enhancing the aesthetic. The score is subdued in this film, which uses silence interspersed with bursts of music to its advantage. Of course, the film is still high-concept and exaggerated, and it has plenty of bombastic moments. The ending is a doozy, willing to go very dark to get its point across, but there’s plenty of other big scenes along the way. There’s a David and Goliath-style fight scene, as well as a couple of shoot-outs to keep the pace up. It’s still fairly episodic by its nature, with Snake moving from one threat to the next without much respite, but it’s also a tense affair with some memorable moments.

Escape from New York on IMDb

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