Director John Carpenter didn’t make “Escape from New York” into the iconic cult hit that he did with “Halloween.” Although this futuristic tough-guy thriller inspired only one sequel and several knock-offs, it didn’t forge the numerous sequels and remakes that “Halloween” spawned. According to Box Office.Mojo, the low-budgeted “Escape from New York” (**1/2 out of ****) coined $50 million worldwide on a mere seven-million dollar budget so it qualifies as a solid hit. Carpenter manages to put every cent on film. When you consider that most of the film was lensed in St. Louis rather than Gotham, this is impressive. Carpenter was limited to what he could show so he conceals well enough. The only time that Manhattan in totality appears as a prison is in the map scenes. The scenes in New York City appear realistic enough in what constituted a prison hellhole lighted with fires that cast ominous shadows. Interestingly, nobody but Carpenter saw Kurt Russell as integral to the lead role as Snake Plissken. The studio preferred Charles Bronson, but Carpenter thought Bronson was too old. Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasance, Adrienne Barbeau, and Harry Dean Stanton co-star.
“Escape from New York” opens with some expository narrative that Carpenter said they decided to incorporate to give audiences a leg up on the setting and background of the story. Graphics accompany the following narration: “In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don't come out.” Basically, World War III is drawing to a close, and the anonymous President (Donald Pleasance of “Halloween”) is flying in Air Force One when a terrorist masquerading as a stewardess hijacks it. She broadcasts a defiant proclamation: “Tell this to the workers when they ask where their leader went. We, the soldiers of The National Liberation Front of America, in the name of the workers and all the oppressed of this imperialist country, have struck a fatal blow to the fascist police state. What better revolutionary example than to let their president perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison.” Before Air Force One crashes, the President climbs into a pod and the pod is expelled from the aircraft.
Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef of “For Few Dollars More”) discusses a plan with the Vice President to send in a hardened criminal facing a life sentence in Manhattan to rescue the chief executive. He chooses a former war hero, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), because Snake has flown an ultra-quiet glider called the Gullfire during the war in Leningrad. When Hauk went in earlier to save the President, the thugs in the street warned him that they would kill the President unless Hauk and his men took off in 30 seconds. Hauk offers the reluctant Plissken amnesty for all his crimes if he will bring the President out in less than twenty-four hours. You see, Snake had been arrested for trying to rob a Federal Bank. Snake doesn’t exactly leap at the offer and Hauk explains that time is of the essence. The President was scheduled to appear at the critical Hartford Summit to deliver an audio cassette that had a message on it about nuclear fusion. It is essential that the President appears with that message.
Plissken agrees to fly the Gullfire and bring out the President. Nevertheless, the suspicious Hauk takes special precautions to ensure Snake’s loyalty. He explains how he will keep Snake from flying the other way once Snake is airborne. “ Two microscopic capsules lodged in your arteries. They're already starting to dissolve. In 22 hours, the cores will completely dissolve. Inside the cores are a heat-sensing charge. Not a large explosion, about the size of a pinhead, just big enough to open up both of your arteries. I'd say you'd be dead in 10-15 seconds...” Predictably, Snake is not thrilled at this revelation, but he manages to take it in stride. Our rugged hero flies the Gullfire into Manhattan. Although he lands atop the World Trade Center, he almost plunges over the side. Snake locates the wreckage of Air Force One and finds no survivors. He consults the tracking device that receives signals from the President’s electronic wrist bracelet. Eventually, Snake tracks down the signal, only to discover that a drunk (George ‘Buck’ Flower) is wearing it instead of the Chief Executive. Snake is taken on a tour of the city by the loquacious Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), who has been cruising the city streets in his yellow cab for 30 years. Snake learns from the ‘Brain’ (Harry Dean Stanton) that the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) has captured the President. Snake tries to rescue the President, but neither are free for long. Snake takes an arrow in the leg and is forced to fight a giant (Ox Baker) in an arena with clubs. Snake defeats the giant and gathers ‘Brain,’ the President, and Maggie and they make a break for the 69th Street Bridge. Earlier, the Duke had planned to lead his army of convicts and storm the bridge. The Duke needed the ‘Brain’ because he had a diagram of where all the land mines where placed.
The formulaic action is dark, hard and gritty, and Carpenter stages the violence with reasonable aplomb. However, Carpenter’s work as music composer, along with Alan Howarth, overshadows his work as director. The opening “Escape from New York” theme is classic stuff! The music invests the film with a palpable sense of atmosphere. Clocking in at 99 minutes, this “Dirty Dozen” type genre film never wears out its welcome. The best parts are the opening twenty minutes and the concluding twenty minutes. Knowing that gigantic wrestler Ox Baker wasn’t trying to throw his punches, but connect them with Russell makes their memorable in the arena as they clobber each other with clubs more realistic. The snake tattoo that Snake wears and his eye-patch look thoroughly believable and Snake’s refrain “Call me Snake” bolsters Russell’s performance. Van Cleef contributes an intimidating mongoose performance. Kurt Russell looks suitably tough as Plissken with a raspy voice, a black eye-patch, and a beard.
“Escape from New York” emerges an above-average but threadbare thriller.