Escape from New York
Dir: John Carpenter
Star: Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef
Cert / Year: 15 - R / 1981
Format: DVD R2

In the near future (well 1997 according to the film) New York's Manhattan Island has been turned into a massive prison camp, inside it is ruled by the prisoners while the police are encamped around the walls. Unfortunately terrorists have captured Airforce One, crashing it into the prison. Now Police commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) must rescue the President (Donald Pleasence), luckily for him former war hero turned thief Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has just been sentenced to New York prison. Snake is persuaded to take the mission, only to be told he has been injected with a bomb so he has only twenty four hours to complete it. Time to get the president and Escape from New York.

This is a great example of how to make a good sci-fi film and not have it cost the world (6 million to be precise). Clever use of matte paintings, and of real world sets, are fine examples of this. The film, apart from one shot at the beginning, was filmed in St. Louis (I suppose Escape from St Louis didn't have the same impact), the New York skyline was added using Matte (drawn by James Cameron!). This was a clever choice as the city had suffered a large fire in 1977 and some areas had not been rebuilt, thus ensuring a realistic representation of city falling into ruin could be achieved. Add to this a proliferation of wrecked cars and watered down the streets and you have some great locations. The only point at which this doesn't work is the representation of central park which looks nothing like the real thing.

These sets are used to full effect by John Carpenters direction. It is dark, no not in tone, it is actually dark (it would appear that New York has very few hours of daylight according to the film). This can work for a film adding atmosphere in for example Alien or against it when you can't see what's happening as in The Relic. Fortunately in this case it is working for it, with reflections off the wet streets providing great atmosphere. Full use is made of the shadows that this form of lighting affords with conversations and characters appearing in silhouette. My favourite example of this is when Snake is bought into Hauk's office, as he walks in you can't see his face until Hauk reacts and he moves into the light.

This stylish direction painted a perfect backdrop for one of the best anti-heroes of all time. The character of Snake Plissken is great and is played to perfection by Carpenter favourite Kurt Russell. He is a brooding mass of hostility, icily cool and deadly dangerous, he is the poster child for antidisestablishmentarianism (Phew, I never thought I'd use that word in a review). We never quite find out why he is so legendary or so feared (or why every one thinks he's dead), but thanks to some fine acting it is made easy for us to believe it. This is Kurt Russell's finest hour, he makes Plissken (you can call him Snake) one of the coolest heros ever.

Snake is helped or hindered by a fine backup cast. Harry Dean Stanton provides a reliable stock performance as brain (or Harold Helman!). He is helped by he pneumatic Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie brain's squeeze and bodyguard. She provides only main woman's role in the film, all be it a strong one. The pick of the characters though is Cabbie played by Ernest Borgnine who gives a fine performance. The best dialogue is reserved for Lee Van Cleef (Hauk) in his interactions with Snake, as he provides a character that is strong enough to measure upto Snake. There are disappointments, Issac Hayes (of South Park and Shaft theme fame) is a non entity as the Duke of New York, and Donald Pleasence just doesn't convince as the president.

I know I've been going on about this recently, but here again we have a top example of how a music score can be used to enhance a film. A good title tune can really get you going as the film starts, just try thinking of Star Wars or Ghostbusters. More than that great incidental music and background score really add a lot to the movie experience. I mean would Highlander have been quite as memorable without the superb Queen soundtrack, possibly not. John Carpenter does tend to produce most of the music for his films, and Escape from New York is no exception. His style is very distinctive, relying as it does almost entirely on synthesisers, but here it works magnificently. The theme music is one of my favourites of all time.

Ok in summary we have some great music, a superb antihero and some top direction. These things combine to make a highly entertaining movie. Yes some of the scenes are a little silly (the taxi blowing in half) but this is comic book action. It is definitely not a silly as Mission Impossible 2 which took itself far more seriously. In short the style selected works well with strengths of the movie, a comic book hero for a comic book adventure. Its all good stuff and a fine chance to see John Carpenter and Kurt Russell at their combined best.


1997. New York city is now a maximum security prison. Breaking out is impossible. Breaking in is insane.


Snake: Call me Snake!

Cabbie: Snake Plissken, I heard you were dead.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Picture 2.35:1 Picture is clean bur grainy, and occasionally appears washed out
Audio Dolby Stereo Plain Stereo but it does have some nice effects
Features 12 pages of production notes
Verdict Poor transfer and lack of extras is inexcuseable. Please produce a re-mastered, 5.1 collectors edition now, as this is a massive injustice to a great film.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Glitz Theme Back Top Home