Film Review: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK ***** USA 1981 Dir: John Carpenter. 99 mins

Carpenter’s hugely influential dystopian sci-fi movie indulged his adoration of antiheroes and life-long disdain for authority, while taking the crime-ridden, pre-Giuliani state of New York City (already the subject of various vigilante movies) to its natural extreme. The Big Apple’s crime rate has spiralled so much that, in the far-flung future year of 1997 – as explained by narrator Jamie Lee Curtis – “Manhattan Island” has become a walled-off prison, where former Special Forces badass “Call me Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell) ventures in order to rescue the stranded U.S. President (Donald Pleasence) and get a reprieve from his life sentence. Although relentlessly cynical, this now has the nostalgic comfort factor of vintage, early 80’s Carpenter territory, from the catchy main theme and sleek nocturnal tracking shots to the director’s repertory company. Tom Atkins oversees the security operation on the prison perimeter, Charles Cyphers is Secretary of State, Nancy Stephens represents the National Liberation Front and, as a suitably corrupt President, Pleasence spends much of the movie tied to a wall and shot at before being forced to wear an unflattering blonde wig. Russell, fresh from his stint as the King in Carpenter’s ELVIS, steals Clint’s voice and John Wayne’s walk as our surly, Spaghetti Western-influenced guide to a marvellous vision of post-apocalyptic New York. Ernest Borgnine’s chipper cabbie grins with glee, Carpenter veteran Buck Flower lurks in wrecked buildings off his tits (“Sure, I’m the President!”), Isaac Hayes drives a flamboyantly pimped-up car as “The Duke of New York” and the Fox Theatre hosts a grotesque parody of a Broadway show. Every significant role is filled by a distinctive actor, and the misanthropic tone extends to an abrupt, horrible death for THE FOG heroine Adrienne Barbeau and a magnificently flippant punchline setting the pessimistic tone for much of the director’s Reagan-era output. The use of in-camera effects, matte paintings and miniatures remains impressive, and few things in life are as satisfying as Donald Pleasence going batshit mad with a machine gun.

Review by Steven West

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