Friday, May 25, 2012

Escape from New York (1981)

Title: Escape from New York (1981)

Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau


The first thing you notice about Escape from New York is how very dark it is. Everything is black on this one, the characters are dressed in black, the cars are black, the helicopters are black, the entire landscape of this movie is black! The whole film takes place during the course of one night in which famous criminal/ex-soldier Snake Plissken is forced to go to Manhattan Island (which has been turned into a prison island) to rescue the President of the United States. You see, Air Force One was hijacked by a group of terrorists called ‘The National Liberation Front of America’. The terrorist say they’ve struck a fatal blow in the name of all of the oppressed by sending the President of the United States to the inhuman prison he created himself. They mean to let him rot and die down there, in the hands of some of the worst criminals on the planet. and teach him a lesson or two about humility. But of course, the United States government isn’t just gonna sit back and let this happen. They have brought in Snake Plissken, the only man capable of getting the job done. Like Hauk tells Snake while trying to convince him to do the job: “You flew the ‘Gulfire’ over Leningrad; you know how to go in quiet; you’re all I’ve got!”

Escape from New York is an interesting film because whenever you talk about post apocalyptic movies, you really can’t leave this one out even though technically speaking; it isn’t a post apocalyptic film. There has been no nuclear holocaust, no deadly virus; the apocalypse in this future exists solely behind the walls of the island of Manhattan, which has been transformed into a penitentiary. So the apocalypse in Escape from New York is actually a social one. Within the walls of this huge jail cell, there’s no rules, no regulations, no cops, only “the prisoners and the worlds they’ve created”. So it’s not really a post apocalyptic film, but at the same time, its the best post apocalyptic film. Carpenter’s Manhattan is one evil looking place. I think this is what makes this film so fascinating; this prison world populated by the lowest of the low. It’s the most evil scum bags that walk through this prison worlds pitch black alleys and streets. When I was a kid and first saw this movie I was frightened by it, the characters that lived with in Manhattan seemed truly evil to me, especially this guy:

Snake Plissken’s the ultimate rebel; he hates “the man” or doing anything for him, in fact if there’s anything that he can take from “the man”, he will. Case in point: when the film opens up, Plissken is handcuffed and being taken to the Manhattan penitentiary. What we don’t know is that he is being taken their because he was holding up the Federal Reserve Depository, a scene that was later cut out of the film because Carpenter didn’t consider it necessary; I agree, it’s more intense just to meet Snake, not knowing where he is coming from. Kurt Russell describes Plissken as a mercenary, a mix between Bruce Lee, The Executioner, Darth Vader and Clint Eastwood. He’s a guy who only cares about the next 60 seconds of his life. This rebellious character goes in accordance with some of Carpenter’s films, which have always had a rebellious streak to them. For example, They Live (1988) which is about how the powers that be control our minds through marketing and subliminal messages; Escape from New York is about an imperialistic fascist America. Escape from L.A. (1996) is also anti-establishment, but in a whole other way that I will get into when I review it soon. So what we got here is a film made by two rebellious, freedom loving  individuals, Carpenter and Russell.

Kurt Russell and John Carpenter have worked together on various films, here they are together on the set of Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Plissken is Kurt Russell’s favorite character. To Russell, the character represents America, the idealistic free America all true Americans want; that idealistic version of America where people can be truly free to do as they choose. Through it’s science fiction story, Escape from New York commented on the status quo of the country during the late 70’s, a time when liberty and freedom of expression were constantly under attack. Some might label Escape from New York as an anti-government film, and I would have to say that it is. Escape from New York is the kind of film that warns us of what could come should governments get more oppressive or fascist. Rule, after rule after rule until you can’t barely move. This film and it’s sequel is ruled by a government that tells its citizens that they can’t smoke, can’t  drink, can’t have premarital sex, can’t try drugs, can’t speak foul language, can’t, can’t, can’t. Now I ain’t saying doing all these things equals liberty, but a person should be able to choose what they want to do, no matter what it is. It’s all about true freedom of the self. There is a distinct amount of cynicism towards the figure of the President of the United States  on this film. He is portrayed as a selfish, self absorbed individual. A cold man who doesn’t give a damn about the people who die for him, he has this fakeness to him. He says one thing to your face but means another. But we have to understand that Carpenter wrote this film coming out of the whole Nixon era, a time when no American trusted their president, where human rights were constantly being violated in the country. Escape from New York is a reflection of that time when most Americans agreed they had a madman in power.

But Plissken’s all about freeing ourselves from all of that; about living the ideal American dream of freedom and doing whatever the hell you want with your life, which is probably why this film is such a cult favorite; people just love Plisskens ‘take no shit from nobody’ attitude. This freedom theme goes in accordance to Russell’s own personal Libertarian point of view. Yes my friends, Kurt Russell’s neither Democrat nor Republican, he’s a Libertarian, and Libertarians are all about maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state in our lives. They believe in free will and freedom of expression and thought. Just like Plissken, Russell’s an outcast because of his beliefs, not everyone agrees with the Libertarians point of view, especially not Hollywood. Still, this hasn’t stopped Russell and Carpenter from making a distinctively rebellious film. It’s obvious that Russell’s put a lot of his own rebellious persona into Snake Plissken. But I felt that he put more of himself into the way the character was portrayed in the sequel, but more on that in my future review for Escape from L.A. Final words on Escape from New York is that it’s a real cult classic, an extremely influential film and simply put, it's a film that just won’t die. New generations keep discovering it and liking it. I believe that the publics long lasting affection with the film stems from Snake Plissken and what he represents; our perennial search for personal freedom in this world; in the end that’s what we all want and need; and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Italian Poster 


Jack Thursby said...

Love. Love. Love. Love this movie. First watched it as a kid. My dad had recorded it on video because it had Lee Van Cleef in it (who he liked in old westerns) but in the end I don't think he ever got around to watching it. His loss, my gain.

Must have watched it 20+ times. It's probably my favourite JC flick. Scared the beejebus out of me too. That creepy guy played the Duke's right hand man freaks me out still. That gasp he does when he gets stabbed is like something out of vampire movies.

I like that you reviewed the film's politics rather than it's action. It's definitely a post-Watergate film. I think it was deliberate that he seemingly miscast a British actor as the American President. I think it's just another dig at politicians not necessarily representing the interests of their people.

I like the idea that Russell represents America in all Carpenter's movies. I think the analogy totally fits with his characters in The Thing, Escape from LA and Big Trouble.

Interested to hear your thoughts on the sequel. Despite it not being quite as good as this I think it makes some interesting points about West Coast culture.

Franco Macabro said...

That creepy characater is called 'Romero' one of Carpenter's many homages to some of his favorite filmmakers. There's another character in the film called Cronenberg!

I reviewed the film from its political stance because, behind all its b-movie sensibilities, its a very political film, and so's the second one. They are about government.

Yeah, Russell's love for liberty comes through in many of his characters, I love that line in Big Trouble in Little China when he says "may the wings of liberty never loose a feather!"

Can't wait to review the sequel, it has it's faults, but I ended up liking parts of it more than I did upon my first viewing. Review should be up on monday.

ian!!!! said...

The first of the beloved Russel Trilogy. The first of the John Carpenter movies I saw and still a favorite.

I even based a RPG character after Snake Pliscan.

ian!!!! said...

The Big Trouble toast scene has been a favorite of a buddy and me. We always ended out drunken outings with a single shot and him quoting Wang Chi and me qouting Jack Burton from that scene.

Just great stuff!

Franco Macabro said...

There's no doubt ian!!! Big Trouble in Little China has quoting material that will last you a life time!

"You ready Jack?"
"I was BORN ready!"

"Theres my truck...MY TRUCK!"

"First time you even plugged somebody?"
"Course not!"

Sergei Kolobashkin said...

I wonder, what happen to the third film?

Franco Macabro said...

It was going to be called Escape from Earth...just the title sounds so freaking promising! Sadly, every one involved with these films is too old now...the only way they could make Escape from Earth is if they reboot the franchise, which was about to happen a while back with Gerard Butler playing Snake...but now the project as far as I know is dead in the water. Let's see what happens, we gotta keep our eyes opened for any info on the reboot, cause I know that at the very least, Hollywood has been considering it.

Joseph Hurtgen said...

There's certainly a lot to this movie.

John Carpenter’s Escape from New York reflects a changing American landscape. One in which more people than ever were jailed, more people were suspicious of the government and government leaders, and unlikely individuals were viewed as heroes.


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