Children of Bond - Escape from New York

Escape from New York is a cult 1981 film directed by the great John Carpenter. The year is 1997 and America's crime problems are so out of control the government has turned Manhattan Island into a gigantic prison - a wasteland populated entirely by criminals, fenced off by high-security walls, and guarded by armed police and helicopters. The rules are simple. If you are a criminal you are thrown into this lawless concrete jungle and stuck there forever.
A big problem arises however when the President (Donald Pleasance) accidentally ends up in this makeshift prison after Air Force One is hijacked by a revolutionary group and he uses his escape pod - only to be taken hostage by 'The Duke' (Isaac Hayes). The Duke's (as in Duke of New York) gang rule the Big Apple and sends the authorities one of the President's fingers as evidence of his capture and proof that the Duke is not to be messed with. To make matters worse, the President is due to deliver a vital pre-recorded speech at a Summit seeking a resolution to World War III.
Enter the notorious 'Snake' Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former soldier turned violent robber. Plissken is offered a pardon by US Police Force Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) if he'll covertly go into this penal City and rescue the President.
Plissken has twenty-four hours to accomplish this task and just to give him extra resolve and keep him under control, Hauk has secretly planted small time-delayed explosive charges in his neck...
Escape From New York was made on a very modest budget for a film of its type but like many John Carpenter efforts makes up for its lack of money with ingenuity and clever effects. Carpenter (to use pretentious jargon) is an auteur who writes, directs and also composes his own music. His principle hero is Howard Hawks (although Carpenter's work is more pessimistic) and many of his films are essentially modern Westerns with horror, science fiction and action elements.
The familiar trademarks and techniques of John Carpenter are empty rooms and streets (emptiness represents suspicion and generates anticipation), flawed Hawksian heroes we can sort of relate to, pyrrhic victories, distrust of government and authority, electronic music with accentuating notes, a love of anamorphic Panavision, and minimal exposition when telling a story. He went slightly off the boil in the end but he was great in his day, establishing his reputation making modestly budgeted films outside the confines of the mainstream.
The film starts with a wonderfully atmospheric animated sequence explaining the purpose of the prison and telling us that crime in the United States increased by 400% with (unbilled) narration by Jamie Lee Curtis. Escape From New York also has a memorable opening shot that pans up a security wall to reveal a helicopter flying across the river at night with New York in the background. The film makes good use of miniatures and matte paintings and looks like a much more expensive production than it actually was at times.
Wireframe graphics are also used to good effect in the film and there's a great sequence where Plissken enters the city covertly in a glider and lands on top of the World Trade Centre. The eighties effects are quite charming in their own way, especially today when many films look like cartoons with all the CGI. I did enjoy Snake being equipped with 007 style gadgets like a clunky countdown watch and a locator too. If you ever get a chance, listen to Carpenter's audio commentary for Escape from New York. He admits that all the technology in the film was inspired by the gadgetry of James Bond.
It's fun to gradually learn more about this world and how things operate there. Some cars run on steam and there seems to be no electricity for the most part - adding an element of danger and atmosphere. New York is depicted very strikingly as a decayed, burnt out ruin of a city with dark alleyways and rubbish strewn streets. This post-apocalyptic feel was aided by shooting the film in parts of St Louis which were ravaged by fires in the seventies. The film is mostly a series of set-pieces which are always enjoyable with the gruff, sarcastic Snake as our central character.
One of the best things about the film is John Carpenter's pounding score which opens with an immediately recognizable riff and helps to push the film along, especially the climax. You are never quite sure who to trust in the film and this adds a bit of tension because you find yourself wanting Plissken to get out alive as characters double-cross each other. There is also a striking fight sequence set in a dilapidated Madison Square Garden where Plissken is forced to battle a 7ft goon played by wrestler Ox Baxter.
Carpenter casts many of his favourite Western veterans in the film to good effect also. Ernest Borgnine is good as the perpetually cheerful 'Cabbie', a molotov cocktail wielding, Jazz loving taxi driver who ferries Snake around, delighted to have had a celebrity of sorts in his cab - "I've been driving a cab here for 30 years and I'm telling you: you don't walk around here at night! Yes, sir! Those Crazies'll kill you and strip you in ten seconds flat!"
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There is quite a nice running joke where the notorious Snake's name is known by everyone but most people expected him to be taller in real life. Cult actor Harry Dean Stanton is also good value as 'Brain', New York's gasoline supplier and untrustworthy fix-it man for The Duke.
It's great of course to see legendary Western star Lee Van Cleef as Hauk and his scenes with Russell are great fun, especially as Russell is clearly doing a Clint Eastwood impersonation as Snake! "It's the survival of the human race, Plissken. Something you don't give a s**t about," says Hauk. He's clearly knocking on a bit and has a dodgy leg but Van Cleef still has a great deal of charisma and presence when he fixes someone with that cold narrow stare.
Hauk and Plissken are interesting because they are similar men but on opposite sides. Donald Pleasance, a Carpenter favourite, is wonderfully twitchy and slimy as the hostage President although it's never really explained why the American President seems to be some English bloke!
It was also a clever move to cast Isaac Hayes as The Duke. The Duke is firmly in control of this strange prison and there nice little touches like giving him a ridiculously large car with chandeliers for headlights. This being a John Carpenter film there are also some little in-jokes like characters named Romero and Cronenberg.
Snake Plissken is a great anti-hero and character with his eye-patch and elaborate stomach tattoo and a deadpan Kurt Russell is clearly relishing an early action role and chance to jettison his Disney image. Snake has little time for the President or any sense of patriotic loyalty and trusts no one. "I don't give a f*** about your war," is Snake's succinct view of politics and the world situation.
Carpenter wrote the film when the United States was still bogged down in Vietnam and Watergate was fresh in the memory and has good fun generally belittling authority and politicians in Escape From New York. It's interesting to consider that the studio wanted to cast Charles Bronson as Snake but Carpenter insisted the actor was too old and suggested Russell, with whom he'd made Elvis. It's impossible now to think of anyone other than Kurt Russell playing Snake Plissken.
Escape From New York is a winning blend of action and science fiction with many inventive touches and a great sense of atmosphere. It's always a lot of fun with an iconic anti-hero, an enjoyable cast, some good lines, and a very satisfying final scene.
- Jake

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