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
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
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
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!"
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.