At the beginning of Escape from New York we find out that it is the year 1997, and the USA has become so infested with crime that a few years prior to the events depicted in the movie Manhattan Island was turned into a maximum security prison.
Manhattan is now surrounded by a 50 foot high containment wall, and cut off from the outside world by the rivers dotted with mines and bridges rigged with booby traps, to say nothing of the non-stop surveillance by helicopters from the nearby police headquarters on Liberty Island.
Review by SAndman
June 7, 2009
Director: John Carpenter
John Carpenter and Nick Castle
Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken
Donald Pleasence as President
Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie
Isaac Hayes as The Duke
Harry Dean Stanton as Brain
Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie
Lee Van Cleef as Hauk
Computer Voice: Attention. You are now entering the Debarkation Area. No talking. No smoking. Follow the orange line to the Processing Area. The next scheduled departure to the prison is in two hours. You now have the option to terminate and be cremated on the premises. If you elect this option, notify the Duty Sergeant in your Processing Area.
We also find out that as the World War Three is drawing to a close, the future of mankind will be decided at a top priority summit of the USA, Soviet Union and China.
Unfortunately, the president of the USA, en route to the summit, is taken captive and his plane crash lands inside Manhattan.
It should be noted that the script for Escape from New York was written in the wake of the Watergate scandal and, as Carpenter himself pointed out, a lot of dejection over the cover-up went into it.
Though the filming was delayed due to the reluctance of film studios to bankroll a project which paints such a gloomy and cynical picture of the powers-that-be, and Escape from New York did not go into production till the late seventies, the ghost of Watergate is a palpable presence in the movie.
For example, the president's hijackers are a revolutionary group that call themselves the National Liberation Front of America. In the messages which the revolutionaries send over the radio they refer to the government as "imperialistic" and "racist police state".
In addition, Carpenter makes lots of overt and covert stabs at the establishment throughout Escape from New York. In one of the opening shots we see an ironic juxtaposition - there is the Statue of Liberty and at the foot of it a policeman armed with a machine gun stands watch.
The president himself (played by Donald Pleasance) cuts a decidedly dislikeable figure which veers from self-importance to utter disregard for human life.
By the way, I've often wondered at the 400% crime increase mentioned in the back story. What could have gone so terribly wrong in America to account for such an outrageous figure? Have so many people gone mad, or have they been driven to crime? And could it perhaps be that for some reason, say, the pressures of the ongoing war, the system has taken a turn for a more autocratic type of government?
Oddly enough, for me the sprawling prison itself has somehow always borne reminiscences of something more ominous than just a maximum security prison - read, a penal colony for all misfits and malcontents!
Anyway, we learn that the president has survived the crash in the escape pod but is presently captured by the inmates led by the self-styled "Duke of New York". The Duke (played by Isaac Hayes) is planning an escape from the prison using the president as a bargaining chip with the police.
After the aborted rescue attempt Chief Warden Hauk opts for a one-man mission. Of course the man supposed to get in and bring the president out alive is the most unlikely of all candidates, the infamous bank robber and fugitive Snake Plissken.
The man hunt turns into a race against the clock as Hauk had two microscopic time-bombs injected into Snake's carotid arteries in case Snake, once released, attempts to flee for the border. The bombs are set to go off in 23 hours.
Kurt Russell's performance is nothing short of brilliant. He exudes the tough guy charm and in a movie in which he doesn't say more than 100 words - they never talk much in Carpenter's movies, do they? - he makes one the most memorable roles of his career.
The other actors in Escape from New York also do a great job, especially Donald Pleasence as the president, and Adrienne Barbeau as the gutsy gun-toting gal fiercely loyal to her lover, Brain (played by Howard Dean Stanton), Snake's old partner in crime with whom Snake has some unsettled scores.
Manhattan in Escape from New York looks like an absolute hell hole with the smashed shopfronts, gutted streets, rundown buildings, burning tires, piles of litter and all the usual images of urban post-apocalyptic nightmare along with lots of spooky weird-looking characters which crawl out of the woodwork, literally - men reduced to yapping and bellowing beasts prowling the streets for food, street gangs sporting the latest in loincloths and tattered jeans.
After lots of flying fisticuffs and smashed cars...well, I am not going to give away the ending. Let me rather finish with one of Snake's trademark brusque replies and the personal favorite.
At one point a character in the movie surprised to see Snake says,"I heard you were dead.", to which Snake replies,"I am."
And then he goes on to absolutely trash the place. Not bad for a dead man!
For me that is the most memorable thing about Escape from New York. The larger-than-life hero. Snappy, audacious. Ready to take on anything you throw at him.
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