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Escape from New York
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by Brett Gallman

"Carpenter's post-apocalyptic Western masterpiece."
5 stars

If you know your John Carpenter, then you know he never shied away from his love for Howard Hawks; this admiration obviously revealed itself when he updated “Rio Bravo” and “The Thing From Another World” into “Assault on Precinct 13” and “The Thing.” And while the former technically transplanted Hawks’s story from the dusty frontier to the gravelly streets of Los Angeles, it’s arguable that Carpenter didn’t truly do his Western update until "Escape From New York," a film that actually seems to owe more to John Ford’s “The Searchers” more so than to anything related to Hawks.

The new frontier is the then-future 1997 wasteland, where Manhattan Island has been converted to a maximum security prison (“once you go in, you don’t come out,” Jamie Lee Curtis intones via voiceover narration). When an extremist group (The National Liberation Front of America, representing the insane sector of the 99%) kidnaps the President (Donald Pleasence, still British despite playing the American commanding chief), the military can only turn to one man. Enter Carpenter’s enigmatic gunslinger : Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former decorated soldier turned outlaw who is given a chance at amnesty if he can rescue the President within 24 hours.

Despite playing the John Wayne role of “the searcher,” Russell snarls and sneers with the detached contempt and gravelly inflection of Eastwood’s Man With No Name, which seems somehow fitting since he’s taking orders here from one of the all time great black hats from the spaghetti western scene in Lee Van Cleef (whose subordinates here are Tom Atkins and Charles Cyphers, rounding out a badass triumvirate).

Plissken even comes with his own aura--somehow, everyone that he runs into recognizes him immediately, though everyone greets him with the same refrain--“I thought you were dead.” Like any drifter who wanders into a frontier, he feels like a conqueror the moment he steps foot into the ashen, bombed out streets of Manhattan, and he even comes complete with an eye-patch to accentuate his grizzled demeanor. One of cinema’s great mercenaries (“I don’t give a fuck about your war,“ he insists), he’s the lone gunman transported to the cyberpunk 80s, brimming with anti-heroic ambivalence that betrays the nihilism and fuelling “Escape From New York.”

This is a searing, bleak vision of the future and one that’s immediately and strikingly realized when we see America’s most iconic city reduced to a smoky, grim husk, its typically illuminated skyline rendered into a ghastly shade. The film’s politics are broad, yet still relevant even in its exaggerated dystopian view of a “future” that’s now 15 years old. Snake is our entry point--he not only doesn’t give a fuck about America’s war--he doesn’t even care for the President himself, seeing this whole shindig as a chance for freedom.

All of this doesn’t come off as ultra-conservative paranoia of big government, but rather, as general distrust for authority, with Snake being the ultimate thumb-nosing anarchist. In a world gone to hell, he’s one of the few people with an actual conviction, even if it is just to himself; that we’re asked to (and on many levels easily) identify with him speaks to post-Watergate cynicism. If westerns often took the form of odes to the lawlessness and violence of the old frontier, then “Escape From New York” is an elegy for a future defined by social morass and violent upheaval, dominated by absurd individuals with either the best weapons or the best intel (one of the film’s subplots involves a chase for a map of a minefield that’s preventing the criminals’ escape).

In keeping with the Western theme, Snake is still somehow the unwavering white hat here, as he’s pitted against Isaac Hayes’s “A-Number-One” Duke of New York, the baron of the penitentiary that’s carved out a social order that probably thrives like any other prison system. Both stage dramas and gladiatorial displays serve as entertainment in this backwater landscape that Snake finds himself navigating; it’s all a bit absurd, populated by oddballs and degenerates, which makes this such a treacherous predicament for the President.

It’s not so much that he’s in mortal peril--that much is clear--however, when he’s gussied up in a wig and made to look every bit as absurd as his captors, it represents a flipped script that blurs the line between civilized and primitive. That line is further blurred when the usually stately and austere Pleasence is ultimately turned into a raving, gun-toting maniac himself, completely consumed by this deranged world that he’s been plopped into.

“Escape From New York” is not only one of Carpenter’s finest films, it’s one an unquestionable masterpiece in lo-fi filmmaking. It’s a grungy, ramshackle production marked by an impressive design from veteran Joe Alves, who dresses up both soundstage interiors and actual locations to realize a seedy post-apocalyptic “future” that feels even more effective now since it’s been rendered a bit archaic. Even the sleek government sets are oppressively dim neon fortresses where men tinker behind computer screens.

A number of spectacularly shoestring special effects highlight the film, some of which were rendered by James Cameron, who was still a Roger Corman disciple at the time. Snake’s descent into the city via glider is particularly memorable triumph of miniature and model work; there’s gritty craftiness to how this sequence (and the rest of the film) came together despite limited resources. Even the film’s score (co-scored by Carpenter and Alan Howarth) is characteristically electronic and minimalist, feeding into the film’s low-key moodiness; it’s an action film with dynamic sequences, but they’re delivered with such a steady, measured calm that they rarely feel like empty spectacle.

Still, this is also a small-scale film made large due to Carpenter’s Panavision grandeur, especially when it comes to capturing his desolate cityscape; this again feels reminiscent of Ford’s affinity for protagonists defined by their surroundings. Just as Wayne was as rugged as the dusty landscape he walked out into and embraced (even as his companions returned for the warmth of the homestead) at the end of “The Searchers,” so too is Snake Plissken as rough and tumble as the pallid, motley streets of New York. At the end here, he too strolls off from whatever comfort can be afforded him, presumably in search of another untamed, ragged land. Such is life in a world ruled by either inane bureaucrats or crude despots.

The dividing line between civilization and savagery was also an overarching theme in “The Searchers,” with Wayne’s quest being to save the innocence of his niece at all costs. “Escape From New York” assumes that the line is gone, though the desire to maintain it absurdly remains. As usual, Carpenter delivers a dynamite landmine of a film parading around in B-movie clothes--again, not unlike his idols, whose Westerns transcended that genre’s tendency towards the bottom half of a double bill.

Carpenter seems to rarely get credit for his ability to transpose and mash-up genres, and, like most visionaries, he wasn’t always appreciated much in his heyday. In fact, “Escape From New York” represented one of the few major genre hits in his career, perhaps because the Western archetype it riffs on is so universal. Or maybe it’s because “Escape From New York” simply kicks ass and is every bit as cool as any spaghetti western, as gloriously pulpy as any action flick, and as heady as any dystopian sci-fi fable.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=2123&reviewer=429
originally posted: 01/25/12 04:55:04
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User Comments

12/29/17 morris campbell decent best i remember 3 stars
4/28/17 Anne Selby boring 2 stars
7/20/12 Sean Harrison Carpenter's second best action movie. 4 stars
2/19/11 Ark Kickass! Classic! 5 stars
1/24/10 Chad Dillon Cooper Neat idea. Good action. Call him Snake. 4 stars
1/07/10 TravisN It's a bit dated, but so what? It's still an awesome movie. 5 stars
10/31/09 art "GEE carpenter WAS SO RIGHT ABOUT NEW YORK BECOMING A PRISON IN THE YEAR 1997" 1 stars
11/09/08 Otis A ticking clock sci-fi thriller. 4 stars
6/02/07 al smith plissken what a cool dude.they sure dont make em like this anymore 5 stars
3/23/07 action movie fan passable, somewhat corny the thing was far better 3 stars
3/20/07 Brett l. Nash I sure wish they would make a third and fourth escape snake is one bad ass mofo 5 stars
2/17/07 David Pollastrini one of carpenter's best 5 stars
10/22/06 gccc One of the best horror/scifi films ever, Carpenter/Russell at their best 5 stars
10/04/06 K.Sear Why do people view this as such a classic? It's completely aimless!!! 1 stars
9/12/06 David Cohen Moronic, even for a Carpenter film 1 stars
9/12/06 Booksworm I love 80's movies. I love action movies. I like Kurt Russel. Do the math. 5 stars
8/26/06 mike Just watched it... 1 stars
6/10/06 movieguy cool cast but only so-so film 2 stars
5/25/06 Mike Cult Classic - Carpenter's Future approach is a must see, if u like his style 5 stars
1/06/06 JM Synth One of film's most memorable badasses in a less memorable (thoug influential) movie 3 stars
12/01/05 MrsVoorheesBabyBoy A Great Cult Classic 4 stars
9/13/05 ALDO Kurt Russel with an eye patch and a limp, plus John Carpenter synth music. This is cool. 4 stars
5/14/05 Indrid Cold Annoying cheesy 80s look, but a few awesome scenes. 3 stars
1/16/05 Jeff Anderson KURT RUSSELL AND JOHN CARPENTER BOTH ROCK!!!!! Say what you will about this film, it RULES! 5 stars
6/10/04 R.W. Welch Generic actioner has numerous imaginative touches. Avoid the LA version. 4 stars
4/10/04 American Slasher Goddess Interesting and original.Russell is a standout as Snake Plissken. 5 stars
11/28/03 john Snake Plissken may just be the colest american movie hero - fun and very atmospheric 5 stars
10/27/03 Mhen Russell is intense,riveting w/serious attitude never equaled in his other movies. It's A#1! 5 stars
9/05/03 Mr. Hat Very interesting plot and ideas, good cast, nice score. Snake's a tad overrated, though. 4 stars
5/22/03 mr. Pink Overrated! Mildly fun because of the eccentric cast of supporting players 3 stars
4/14/03 Dr. Bitterpants As always, John Carpenter somehow gets an A budget to make a mediocre B movie. But Me Likes 3 stars
4/05/03 y2mckay Woefully dated, godawful score from Carpenter - But Snake Plissken still DA MAN! 4 stars
3/27/03 Ron Simpson A classic! 5 stars
3/19/03 Jack Sommersby Original and suspenseful. Rightly regarded as a classic. 5 stars
3/12/03 Butterball Cenobite suspensful, eerie, but also humerous low budget thriller; Carpenter's apt music, too 4 stars
10/21/02 Nick Teller Incredible! You'll never see another plot like this! The best movies I've ever seen, 10/10 5 stars
6/18/02 Charles Tatum Better than the lousy sequel 5 stars
2/21/02 Girl In Chock Full O' Nuts I love this film. I just wish I could've gotten out! 5 stars
2/11/02 Snake Plissken's son Movie rocks. Wish he had killed more crazies with Mac-10, though. 5 stars
1/30/02 Rakesh Kumar Any Carpenter with Russel in it deserves 5 stars. Easily the best of 80's action movies 5 stars
1/01/02 Dizzy Dean What a crock of shit 1 stars
11/22/01 Andrew Carden Just Plain Old Simple Action-Filled Fun. 5 stars
8/17/01 Monster W. Kung Saw it as a child and totally loved it. Saw it recently and I must admit it's very flawed. 3 stars
8/05/01 E-Funk At the top of my cult list. Carpenter gives us guns, gangs, and attitude. 5 stars
4/01/01 Jesse L Pliskin, I thought you were dead! This ROCKS!!!! 5 stars
12/08/00 Destruction Worker Check out the awsome action figure of Snake from McFarlane Toys 5 stars
9/27/00 Patrick Ashmore Great lines, music, and characters 5 stars
6/30/00 Deckard Easily one of Carpenter's best. 5 stars
7/18/99 SID I'm in the minority that likes the sequel/remake better. 3 stars
7/08/99 The Bomb 69 Hard to believe it was made in 1981, awesomw 5 stars
6/28/99 Steve Bashakus Great futuristic film that kicks yer mom's ass. 5 stars
6/09/99 Homer J. Simpson I realy liked this movie,Carpenter is a genius 4 stars
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