Escape from New York (1981), Cert 15, Runtime - 99 minutes.

Director - John Carpenter.

Writer - John Carpenter.

Starring - Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau & Harry Dean Stanton.


Premise - It is 1997, the near future (lol). Manhattan Island has been a penal colony since 1984, the whole island is one giant prison surrounded by walls, with mines on the bridges and in the water. When the President's (Donald Pleasance) plane is high jacked and crash lands inside the prison, the NYPD get convicted robber and war hero, Snake Pliskin (Kurt Russell) to go in and get him out safely.

Do you remember when John Carpenter made good films? When such titles as ‘Ghost’s of Mars’, ‘Vampires’ and ‘Escape from LA’ were just distant nightmares? I do, I remember those times fondly, I would greet the next Carpenter film with wide arms, nowadays I’m more likely to drop kick them out of the way. But, Escape from New York comes from that long forgotten era, the era when Carpenter made good films……..

If there is any one thing that makes Escape from New York work it’s the iconic creation that is Snake Pliskin. Kurt Russell’s Pliskin was doing the anti-hero thing long before Vin Diesel crawled out of the ‘Pitch Black’. With a patch over one eye (never explained, we assume it’s from one of his war missions), a cigarette permanently dangling from his mouth and forever speaking through gritted teeth; he was the ultimate ‘cool’ hero. He gets the job done and damns the consequences of his actions. Russell was the perfect choice for this role; he lived and breathed the role and I can think of no one else that would have nailed Snake the way Kurt did.

The film boasts a fairly respectable supporting cast given the low budget of the flick. Ernest Borgnine shows up as a New York inmate and yellow cab driver. Western legend Lee Van Cleef is the chief of the NYPD and Snake’s nemesis. There are some wonderful scenes between Van Cleef and Russell. Donald Pleasance is the US President, but I just couldn’t shake Blofeld from my mind every time I saw him. Adrienne Barbeau has nothing much to do but stand around and show of her cleavage, so no complaints there!

Isaac Hayes plays The Duke, the leader of the NY inmates. Hayes is really good here, quite an intimidating presence. There is a nice pay off near the end with himself and the President, a nice touch that I appreciated. Stand out of the support is Harry Dean Stanton as Brain. I love Harry Dean Stanton in Alien and here he plays another slimy little bastard. He is as likely to turn you in for a few bucks as to back you up in a fight.

One constant about Carpenters movies is the musical scores, which for the most part he writes himself. In Escape from New York Carpenter does indeed compose his own score and it’s a wonderful thumping synth track, with a glorious uplifting ‘hero’ melody. The thumping baseline for this score acts as a template of sorts for the seminal work that Carpenter would go on to do for ‘The Thing’.

Given the films age and meagre budget, it is really impressive what they have achieved as far as special effects go. Lots of computer graphics (which were actually practical shots as CGI was far too expensive back then) on video screens and some very nice miniature work. The devastated Manhattan skyline is particularly well done (if a little eerie given recent events). The miniature glider effects are also impressive, testament to what can be achieved with a small budget and a lot of talent.

Carpenters direction is tight, the film clocks in at a sprightly 99 minutes leaving little time for dilly dallying. The film moves briskly from one set piece to another and never feels boring. Carpenter seems to relish shooting in the dark and uses the crumbling city sets to create a lot of good tension. Figures running through the foreground and background in the rubble, a shadow here, a manhole cover moving there, some nice work.

As good as Escape from New York is, it is something of a bitter sweet experience. Since we know that Carpenter CAN make really good movies, it makes it all the more depressing when he churns out crap like the titles I mentioned earlier. We can only hope that Carpenter once again finds the form that gave us this great film and many others in the late 70’s/early 80’s.

If you’re a Carpenter fan you really cannot do without this film, it is simply one of the finest films he has made. It’s the role that broke Kurt Russell as a legitimate star and paved the way for him as an actor. If you haven’t seen the film before I implore you to check it out. Just don’t pick up ‘Escape from LA’ by mistake……….



See Escape From New York if you enjoyed - The Thing, Halloween, Escape from LA..

Poster Quote - Don’t let it escape you.