ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: THE GAME box cover artwork
KURT RUSSELL.....Snake Plissken
LEE VAN CLEEF.....Commissioner Bob Hauk
DONALD PLEASENCE.....The President of the United States
ISAAC HAYES.....The Duke of New York
HARRY DEAN STANTON.....Brain
Directed by JOHN CARPENTER
Written by JOHN CARPENTER and NICK CASTLE
Produced by DEBRA HILL and LARRY J. FRANCO
REVIEW BY GENE SISKEL
In Superman II the President of the United States ultimately triumphs over foreign invaders; in Escape from New York the President repels a series of attack from a bunch of minorities---blacks, Hispanics, street crazies.
What's going on here? Seems like a revival of the Right.
But that may be taking both films too seriously, because Escape from New York is as much of a comic book story as is Superman II. In fact, Escape is a bam-zoom-oof melodrama filled with quaint broadbrush characters who speak in shorthand. It's the latest feature from John Carpenter, best-known as the director of the horror classic Halloween.
Escape is a futuristic thriller that wisely is long on thrills and short on futurism. Most science-fiction films flip-flop that equation and wind up being boring essays on the human condition. Not so with Escape.
The intriguing premise of the film is that in the year 1997 New York City has been turned into a prison facility to accommodate the nation's ever-increasing criminal population. A 50-foot wall has been built around all five boroughs. Arriving prisoners are given a choice before they enter: Cremation or incarceration.
If they chose to enter New York---a hideously grubby place that looks remarkably like today's bombed-out South Bronx---they will not be placed in conventional jail cells. On the contrary, prisoners are free to roam the city at will. The only thing they have to fear is each other. Packs of starving inmates roam litter-strewn streets like mad dogs, killing and eating the slow, the weak, and the infirm.
Whereas the gang-fight film The Warriors presented one long street battle, Escape from New York lays a story on top of its mayhem. As the film opens, an unidentified radical group has hijacked Air Force One, the President's plane, and is about to send it careening into a Manhattan skyscraper. The President [English actor Donald Pleasence] manages to jettison himself away from the crash, but he winds up being taken captive by a vicious gang leader known as the Duke of New York [Isaac Hayes]. The Duke lives in deserted Grand Central Station, manufactures fuel, and rides around in a boat-sized white Cadillac with gaudy chandeliers instead of headlights. His chief lieutenant looks like a cross between a punk rocker and the Bride of Frankenstein.
Aware of some of what's happened, the President's aides are in a dither. The chief executive was on his way to Cambridge, Mass., to participate in a crucial summit conference on nuclear weapons with the Chinese and Russians; his delay or-shudder at the thought!---his death could spell the end of the world.
But into every bad movie situation a good guy must fall, and into the maddening mess of Escape from New York falls the character of Snake Plissken [Kurt Russell, the onetime Disney comedy star who has since grown into adult roles, including Elvis Presley in the recent, celebrated TV film]. Plissken is a hard-as-nails type, a disaffected Vietnam veteran who is down on authority, including that of the President.
Plissken, a one-time war hero, apparently has fallen on hard times, and is to be sent to the New York prison. But...if he can save the life of the President in the next 22 hours, then New York's nasty Police Commissioner [Lee Van Cleef, who continues to wear a ring in his ear] will grant him a pardon.
And so, in short order, its Plissken versus the street crazies.
Along the way, Plissken meets a whacked-out cab driver [Ernest Borgnine, not overacting for a change], a warped wizard [Harry Dean Stanton, a fabulous character actor], and a buxom gun moll [Adrienne Barbeau, who is a terrible actress. If she ever buttoned her blouse for a role, she'd probably forget her lines].
Escape is not without its faults. Many of its special effects are cheap looking. A wingswept jet is particularly flimsy, and some of the mockups of New York are quite obvious for these days of special effects wizardry. Also, the film is pleasantly blood-free until, inexplicably, the last two shoot-outs.
But the main thrust of the story conquers all of the faults, even an obvious ending with a nonsensical twist. We root for this guy Plissken to storm the city and save the President [even though the President is played by an Englishman, which is strange because the President, by law, must be a native-born American].
That's just a quibble, however. Escape from New York is yet another entertaining action film in what continues to be the most remarkable summer season of movies I've encountered.
Review © 1981 THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE. All Rights Reserved.
Box cover artwork courtesy of Tom Ericksen
Box cover artwork is the property of its respective owner.
Title and logo designed by Karen Rappaport
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