Escape From New York is easily, one of my favourite movies! Directed by John Carpenter, and starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, and Ernest Borgnine; Escape From New York is an action film set in the city of New York which has now been turned into a prison! Basically; crime in the United States has increased to an all time high, and due to a shortage of prison space, Manhattan Island has been converted into a prison. No building work or cells have been added, just a large wall that surrounds the island! The waterways are patrolled and the bridges are mined. The only rule is that once you enter, you never leave!
The film is set-up rather nicely as it cuts to the key facts needed to understand it very quickly. It chooses details over sub plot, and this helps a lot. So, once you know what these core details are the film launches into it’s main story. It focusses on the arrival of a new inmate, no name as of yet, we just know that the character has an eye patch. Then things take a turn for the worse: Air Force One has been hijacked, with the intention of having it crash in the prison. The President (Donald Pleasance) has been ejected from the plane, but when the recovery team arrive they are met by an inmate (Frank Doubleday), who tells them that the President is with them!
Now the President was on his way to an important meeting, and needing him to be there, the prison’s warden Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), attempts a rescue mission. He employs the services of the inmate who arrived earlier, the infamous Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Snake is sent in to rescue the President, but to ensure his services, has a tiny bomb planted inside his throat with a time limit attached. He successfully makes it inside, but faces an uphill battle as he fights the various inmates to rescue the President.
Now that the film’s setting and plot are all nicely set-up, we can now venture into the dark scary world of this once great city! Now the film did originally have a prologue/alternate opening scene filmed, but which was cut from the release. It is available on the DVD release of the film (at least the one I own). It tells of how Snake was captured and the crime he was charged and sent to the prison for.
Snake Plissken is basically your archetype Antihero. He is cynical, and above all just doesn’t care about, well, about anything! He speaks fast, and with little speech, always getting to the point as quickly as possible. He does though show a small level of morals. Most of the time he will do anything to survive, and has shown a habit of killing with no remorse, but he never does it out of fun. What helps with this character to is that he has a cleverly produced background all setup for him, suggesting that he is a shining knight within the armed forces, with a cavalcade of military honors. It shows that he is more than capable of doing the required job, but it also means that out of all other heroes, he is probably not the first choice for the mission, as he simply just doesn’t care about it!
What’s really cool is that, now that we have a great character as our ‘hero’, we now need equally as big of characters from the supporting cast to both compare and launch each other from, so that’s what we get. For instance, whilst we now have an antihero who just doesn’t care, we then get another ‘hero’, whose job it is to care: Hauk. Again the term hero doesn’t really fit here as he is more like a good villain than a hero. He is more of a hindrance to Snake, but because of his position has to take up a straight forward thinking vision in order to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. He is not necessarily a bad guy, but comes off as one due to his way of thinking, but again, Snake needs a nemesis of sorts to launch off from, plus the story needs a way to make sure the hero gets the job done.
Now that you have two quick thinking and straight to the point heroes (of sorts), you now need someone who is very much the opposite but still big enough of a character to be a good villain for both. So, what do you do? Well in this instance you take a soul singing legend, and then have him speak barely at all, and instead, just look both villainous, and also very cool.
The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) is such a cool bad guy. He enters the film through a little bit of chit chat and referencing here and there before officially making his entrance. He does this in a cool pimped out car with chandeliers, and that low brooding, but still very cool and emotionless soundtrack. He doesn’t say anything, just looks straight ahead before getting out of the car, and once again says absolutely nothing. He commands respect, and can even signal orders just by looking around. I don’t know how many lines of dialogue he has in the entire film, but he rarely speaks at all. He must have less lines than James Cromwell had in Babe! His character doesn’t really develop, but it’s already well developed when he arrives on scene. The only change comes towards the end of the film when desperation takes control, and our heroes must resort to desperate psychological measures and methods to defeat him.
From this we then get into the supporting cast. The first impression of life in New York is summed up so brilliantly by the appearance of Romero (Frank Doubleday). We see littered streets and dilapidated buildings, but then we see a picture of life in New York from what almost looks like a scary clown. This image of Romero, just sums it up so well as to how bad it has become, and how frightening it can be, but this still only scratches the surface of life in New York. It’s this suffering which the President has to now go through. You see him as this smartly dressed politician flying in his own plane, but once he enters New York, he knows he is not in charge anymore. Bad things happen to him throughout the film’s run, and as the end draws near, it really shows on him, as he begins to slip into madness. Things in New York are savage for our heroes, but at the end of the day, it’s nice to see that there is still a good transport service within.
Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) is sort of a story teller from within the walls for the audience, as it demonstrates what New York has become, but also to show that it is possible to carve out a life and even find a level of happiness from within. The bigger question in your mind is how on earth did someone that positive get into this prison? Was he just left there, or did he refuse to leave when the city was originally evacuated?
Finally you get Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). Brain and Maggie are a cool romantic group to root for, even though, much like our lead antihero, they are in the plot for themselves, not for moral reasons. It’s a nice way to create problems in the final act of the film by diverting attention, and creating another problem for Snake. They are there to stir the pot, and craft a brew that creates more problems than results!
Escape from New York is most definitely an action movie, but it also is a character drama as it uses these strong and well crafted characters to tell a story. It’s not necessarily through situation that the film is told, as those events have already taken place, it’s through character interactions that the film unfolds. The situation though is still shown throughout the film as its a really clever idea, and thus must be presented as such. So there are scenes such as the crazies searching for food, the destruction of the plane in the city streets, plus many more instances to remind you what position our ‘heroes’ are in.
One additional feature that helps create the right atmosphere, is the incredible soundtrack. Produced by John Carpenter himself, the soundtrack is a collection of techno themes which range from the slow and brooding, to the fast and energetic depending on the scene. Many of these pieces sound very similar to each other, but they are noticeably different. The standout track though is easily the opening theme. It’s a steady tune which is just an easy going entrance way into the film. It doesn’t suggest anything, it just plays. It builds anticipation, but is quite relaxing at the same time. The electronic sound is very cool, plus has it’s more classic bits such as held piano notes. It’s just a cool way to start of the film, as all the information to setup the film follows on, but for now you just need something for the opening credits.
I absolutely adore this film. When I first saw it I was blown away by it, I just loved everything about it, and over time, my love for it has not diminished, it’s has just grown stronger. From it’s great character work, to it’s cool setting, to it’s amazing soundtrack, Escape From New York is simply put; an Awesome Movie!