FILM REVIEW: Escape from New York (1981)

Escape from New York (USA, 1981)
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, Lee van Cleef, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes

After the production problems on The Fog, John Carpenter sought to re-assert himself as a creative force with Escape from New York. Based upon a script he had written around the time of Dark Star, it promised to be a post-apocalyptic action movie with all the subversive subtext of his earlier work. But whether by flaws in its execution or by the passage of the time, the film doesn't hold up as anything more than an efficient and enjoyable disappointment.Almost by definition, post-apocalypse films don't date very well. Those that do still hold up - Mad Max, The Road, even The Bed-Sitting Room - succeed by being 'universal' in the ideas they examine but crucially vague about when or even how we got to this point in time. Most films about the end of the world are actually about the problems in present society, which can make even the best-made films dated in a matter of years. It doesn't take long to realise for instance that, if the Daleks did invade in 2150, we wouldn't still be driving Bedford vans and eating Sugar Puffs.Carpenter's original script was written at the time of the Watergate scandal, when the idea of a criminal rescuing a president would have carried a great deal of satirical bite. Had he got the money to make it when Nixon resigned, he could have had a hit on his hands which packed as big a political punch as All The President's Men. Telling that story during the Reagan years may still work on some level; turning Manhattan Island into a prison seems every bit as outlandish as the Star Wars programme. But whatever else the original script had simply doesn't gel, turning the film into something far more straightforwardly heroic, if not overtly patriotic.Like They Live a few years after it, Escape from New York is an action movie with large overtones of the western genre. Both John Nada and Snake Plissken are Carpenter's own takes on The Man with No Name, and Kurt Russell's performance is on one level a pretty good impression of Clint Eastwood. The film is built around the classic 'one last job' scenario, in which Plissken is offered his freedom to do the one thing he really doesn't want to do. There is great potential in this character, as a classic anti-hero who eschews authority and is only convinced to obey when threatened with a slow and painful death.Even considering its low budget (around $6m), Escape from New York does look like a film that was made in a hurry. To film some of the key scenes, including the aftermath of the plane crash, the crew had to sneak onto empty streets without permits at 3am, in some cases dumping truckloads of junk onto the roads to create the feeling of chaos. Even from the start the story is being hurried along, with the first 15 minutes doing whatever is necessary to get Snake into the city, and from thereon in the film wastes no time in getting him out. This is not a Chinatown-like mystery, with brooding detectives slowly uncovering a hideous truth; it is a simple, straightforward story and a race against time, and as a piece of efficient filmmaking, it delivers.This rapid approach to shooting does create some obvious continuity errors: in one scene, it's sunrise on one side of the island while still midnight on the other. But the first problem with the film is that it's so quick-fire and so efficient that you begin to wonder whether there's anything actually going on in the pauses. Although it's lost the Watergate backdrop, there is still the potential to explore a number of interesting ideas, if not enough to fill a whole series of films.

The set-up of the film, with a whole city being walled off and turned into a prison, hints at the tendency of civilised societies to isolate and shun its criminals rather than deal with them upfront and try to understand them, something which Carpenter tackled previously in Assault on Precinct 13. The unveiling of a criminal society, presided over by the Duke of New York, puts forward the notion of criminals being every bit as civilised and cunning as either their captors or the protagonist, something reflected throughout the work of Michael Mann. And the conflicts over power, with Harry Dean Stanton's character controlling the city's only source of oil, taps into the very same territory as the first Mad Max film.But as things evolve, it becomes clear that the film isn't really interested in any of these ideas. The film is like a land speed record attempt in which the driver is wearing blinkers; the object is to get from A to B as quickly as possible, and there is no chance to look around or think about anything else. Whenever Carpenter does attempt to tackle deeper issues, it's done in a half-hearted manner using imagery which is surprisingly unoriginal.

Huge sections of the film owe a big debt to Mad Max in a way which really demonstrates all that was spot on about George Miller's debut effort. The criminal gang in Escape from New York don't get enough time to establish themselves, and for all Isaac Hayes' best efforts, he's not as intimidating as the Toe-Cutter. The various street gangs (which reference George A. Romero by calling themselves 'The Crazies') dress every bit as extremely as the bikers, right down to Isaac Hayes' right hand man who looks unnervingly like Keith Flint from The Prodigy. And then there is the fight scene, in which Kurt Russell takes on a wrestler with a huge beard. It may predate the Thunderdome fight in Mad Max 3 by about four years, but there is a tonal similarity to the series in the combination of camp humour and realistic violence.This brings us on to problems with the characters. Escape from New York has more than its fair share of them, from Snake himself to Ernest Borgnine's chirpy Cabby, and from the Duke of New York to the odd couple of Maggie and Brain. But Carpenter sets up so many of these potentially interesting and quirky characters that he can't quite decide who to focus on and ends up having to kill them off in quick succession so that just Snake and the President survive. In the bridge sequence, where Cabby's taxi gets destroyed by several mines, he is incredibly cavalier about who cops it and when.This jumpy approach carries over into the performances themselves. Harry Dean Stanton is an enjoyable screen presence, and he plays Brain very well - so well that you wish he had more screen time. Adrienne Barbeau, on the other hand, seems to spend most of her time either firing a gun or walking into wide shots that show off her cleavage. Ernest Borgnine is annoyingly over-the-top, as if he were trying to cut in on every shot, and Lee van Cleef is reduced to largely scowling behind a desk. Only Kurt Russell gets the screen time he deserves, filling the empty streets of New York with his one-eyed swagger and growling whispers.There are a number of enjoyable moments in Escape from New York which make it at least partially memorable. The set-pieces involving the cars, both on the bridge and breaking through the barricade, are well-choreographed and have good sound design, so that every explosion and crunch of metal is appropriately amplified. Isaac Hayes' entrance will raise a chuckle, as he drives through the wreckage of New York in a limo with chandeliers mounted on the bonnet (eat your heart out, Pimp My Ride!). Some of the humorous exchanges do work well, such as Hayes taunting Donald Pleasance with a gun and then the latter getting his revenge at the end. And the final scene, where the crucial tape has been replaced, is quite funny.But in all, Escape from New York is little more than an enjoyable disappointment. It's a perfectly functional, efficiently made sci-fi actioner, but is nothing like as witty or subversive or thrilling as you would expect from John Carpenter. Like Mad Max 3 a few years later, there are individual scenes that work well but these are counterpointed by longer, more underwhelming sections. Carpenter completists will enjoy it, but everyone else should probably look elsewhere.

Rating: 2.5/5

Verdict: An enjoyable disappointment


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