John Carpenter’s 1981 classic Escape from New York, which the filmmaker wrote in the late 70’s as a direct response to the Watergate scandal, was not a movie that I grew up repeatedly watching as a kid, even though I’m definitely a “child of the 80’s.” That being said, I was always aware of its existence and reputation, and while I had seen it once or twice during my youth at friend’s houses (it was one of “those” movies…), it was never a staple film for me during my formative years. All that being said, having watched it more than a few times over the last few years, I’m struck by how awesome and low-tech and appreciably cheesy the film is, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a film that should NEVER be remade, as it’s a post-apocalyptic movie that feels quaint by our current over the top standards, and to see it blown-up-huge with a massive budget would sort of be depressing. As per usual for Carpenter, the script’s subtext was just as interesting as the onscreen heroics and action set-pieces, while the R-rated violence is also terrific, with all sorts of beat-downs, shoot-outs, and a general air of wise-ass nastiness leading the day.
People within Hollywood have discussed remaking this film throughout the last decade. I hope this never happens. It’s wholly unnecessary. Make no mistake — Kurt Russell is Snake Plissken — there’s just no need to recast the role with some young flash-in-the-pan actor who could never replicate the steely-eyed gaze and incredible anti-hero flavor that Russell brought to his iconic performance. Because the film was made on a low budget, much of it is set at night, yet the darkly photogenic cinematography by 80’s master Dean Cundey has a gritty, rough around the edges feel which takes full advantage of the scuzzy production design and down-home-grubbiness of the entire film. And then there’s Carpenter’s fantastic original score, with that trusty theme music popping up in all the proper spots. The premise is simple: an ex-soldier/convict has 22 hours to find the President (Donald Pleasance) who has been stranded on the prison island of Manhattan after the crash of Air Force One. If he’s successful, he’ll be pardoned. If not, he’ll be killed.
With stripped down efficiency and an attention placed on violent spectacle laced with black humor, Carpenter moves from one sequence to the next with hard-core conviction. Co-written by Carpenter and Nick Castle (The Last Starfighter ), Escape from New York has certainly become a cult classic over the years, but it’s interesting to note that the film was well reviewed and actually became a theatrical success ($25 million off of a $6 million production budget), which sort of bucks the traditional definition of a “cult” movie. Isaac Hayes, Lee Van Cleef, Tom Atkins, and Adrienne Barbeau are all extremely memorable in supporting roles, and let’s not forget endless Ernest Borgnine POWER and Harry Dean Stanton EXTRA POWER. James Cameron worked on the cool matte paintings(!) and also served as an additional director of photography. The Blu-ray is a smashing success, featuring a transfer that retains the texture and grain of the original photography, with lots of special features to make any fan of this film grin ear to ear.
Review by Nick Clement