Press > Escape From New York > Reviews
Shreveport-Bossier Times (Mar
By Lane Crockett
John Carpenter is one of those
filmmakers who does it all. In his latest offering,
Escape From New York,
he co-wrote the script, composed the music and directed, and came up with a
not-unsuccessful futuristic thriller.
The director, who guided
to good box offices, this time has turned his attention to a "suspenser" set in
the 1990s when the entire island of Manhattan has become a central prison for
the nation's lawbreakers. America, one assumes, has evolved into a police state.
The impetus of the picture comes when the president's plane crashes within
Manhattan and the head of the state is held hostage. One man, Snake Plissken (Kurt
Russell), a young war hero and now
dangerous criminal, is the only man who can go in and bring the president out.
To ensure that Plissken, who is offered complete freedom if he does so, will
accomplish the feat, tiny bombs are planted in his system which will destruct in
This is straightforward derring-do with a smattering of fancy to give it a
twist. Carpenter likes this kind of nervy project, and when he settles down to
action sequences the picture has a good deal to recommend it. Somehow, though,
it never quite gets one on the edge of the seat.
The director's conception of a walled-in Manhattan seems to be large piles of
garbage in the streets and a good many deserted stores. Otherwise he doesn't
give us much in the way of what the island looks like in scope. He partly gets
around that by shooting the picture throughout an evening, so that one picks out
Carpenter also is not much interested in filling in story gaps. Where, for
instance, do all those criminals get food? We are already told the state ignores
the place (only patrolling it around the perimeters). The mysterious Snake seems
to be known by every Tom, Dick and Harry - and all of them think he is dead.
Why? What happened to the rest of the country? Granted, Carpenter is only
interested in this telescoped escape attempt, but it comes off as a small part
of a larger drama.
Russell, speaking in a muted growl, wearing an eyepatch and straining for a
super-macho attitude, pushes too hard until he finally settles down. Apparently
this is Russell's try at breaking out of the characters he created for so many
Walt Disney films. Ernest Borgnine,
a former oscar winner for Marty, gives another of his silly
evocations of blue-collar worker, this time, oddly, a cab driver in the prison.
The rest - Lee Van Cleef
as a steely-eyed police official,
as Manhattan's acknowledged kingpin,
Harry Dean Stanton
as his inventive toady and Adrienne Barbeau as Stanton's girl - walk through
Hollywood Reporter (Jun 12/1981/US) By Arthur Knight
The year is 1997, and Manhattan -
all of it from the Battery to the Bronx - has been converted into a walled-off,
maximum security prison in John Carpenter's Escape From New York.
Theoretically, escape is impossible. The bridges are mined, and radar maintains
an implacable vigil over the surrounding waters. And yet an escape route must be
found - and in less than 24 hours - for the President of the United States
(Donald Pleasence), whose sabotaged Air Force One has placed him in the hands of
New York's criminal population.
Who can set him free? Police
Commissioner Lee Van Cleef believes he has found his man in Kurt Russell, a
scruffy war hero who is also a convicted master criminal. If Russell can
accomplish his mission, he can go free; if not, two tiny explosives implanted in
his arteries will kill him - which doesn't leave him much choice.
The focus of this Avco Embassy
production is on Russell's efforts to locate the President in the ravaged city
despite organized terror gangs and the murderous, hunger-driven "gypsies" who
roam the streets by night.
Despite his assortment of futuristic
gadgetry (including a gun that never seems to run out of bullets) Russell is
forced mainly to rely upon - or to outwit - such hardened criminal types as
Season Hubley, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, the
androgynous Tom Atkins and, most formidable of all, Isaac Hayes' self-styled
Duke of New York. (Hubley, who gives him his first lead, is billed simply as
Girl in Chock Full o'Nuts - and is unceremoniously dragged underground for her
Escape From New York is the
kind of movie that calls for an immediate suspension of disbelief. One must
credit Carpenter (and co-writer Nick Castle) for their ingenuity in devising the
central situation; but that granted, the major credit would seem to go to
Carpenter's teams of special effects experts and stuntmen, to Joe Alves, his
production designer, to Stephen Loomis, his costume designer, and to Brian Chin,
for his brilliant miniatures. Together they have created an altogether
convincing picture of New York's grisly future - and all the more impressive for
knowing that most of the exteriors were shot in St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Using the new Elicon camera
equipment, Carpenter remains ever on the alert for the confirming details -
figures that flit disconcertingly by or that menacingly materialize out of the
shadows, rats that have become unconcerned by the presence of man, a vast
terminal lined with decrepit and mouldering railway cars. The photography,
supervised by Dean Cundey, startlingly combines the deep, electric blues of
dark, rain swept surfaces with an oddly cold orange given off by the flickering
street fires that appear everywhere. Carpenter, working for the first time with
a budget ($7 million) approaching the adequate, has given his picture a
It also has a great sound to it
thanks in part to his judicious use of Dolby (which has a tendency to enhance
effects while obliterating dialogue), and to his own twangy, percussive
electronic score, which Carpenter both wrote and performed in association with
Alan Howarth. It is admirably functional, underlining and at the same time
enhancing the action passages.
Which is important, for in the long run, it's the film's incessant action, along
with its high imagination, that will spell out the success of Escape From
New York. There are few of the shock elements of Halloween or
The Fog; in spirit, it's much closer to his earlier Assault on Precinct
13, which ever since it's recent rediscovery has been developing into a
cult classic. My guess is that Escape won't have to wait so long. It
has got an intriguing premise, an effective cast, and it has been expertly
Chicago Sun Times (Jul 10/1981/US)
By Roger Ebert
Escape From New York is far from what it could have been,
but it does have sufficient energy and the idea is different. Carpenter is a bit
more than a competent director and he comes up with some nice camera work,
instilling a sense of eeriness. But, unlike his previous efforts, this one falls
a little short in shaking up the adrenalin. The ending is clever and not really
John Carpenter's Escape From New York is a cross between three of the
most reliable ingredients in pulp fantasy: (1) the President is Missing, (2) New
York is a Jungle, and (3) the Anti-Hero as Time Bomb. Carpenter has gone after
an original angle on each of the ingredients, with disappointing results.
The president, for example, would be much more convincing if he were not played
as a sniveling wimp by Donald Pleasence (of all people). The movie's New York of
1997 would have been more interesting if it were seen as a genuinely different
prison society, rather than as a recycled version of The Warriors. And
the anti-hero needs more human qualities and quirks; he seems lifted from old
These basic problems prevent the movie from becoming more than it is, a
competent job of craftmanship. Escape From New York has the misfortune of
being a merely good thriller in a summer when the standard has already been set
by Raiders of the Lost Ark. And yet it's fun to see old standby
science-fiction ingredients rehashed for our cynical times.
The vision of a post-civilization New York has been used in several movies, most
memorably in The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), in which Harry
Belafonte walked down city streets that were all the more frightening because
they were simply deserted and quiet.
At the beginning of Escape From New York, we learn that the city was
turned into a federal maximum security prison in 1987, and that several years
later the island is ruled by prowling gangs who have their own sources of power,
food and clout. When we see New York, however, it is essentially just a
garbage-strewn junkyard roamed by wild-eyed crazies.
How do people survive there? If the movie had provided specific details, it
could have been fascinating. Instead, we get tantalizing hints of how things
work; for example, a gang leader (Isaac Hayes) has a small oil well pumping
inside his headquarters.
The president has been missing, endangered, kidnapped, blackmailed or otherwise
inconvenienced in countless other movies and novels. This time, after terrorists
hijack Air Force One and crash it into Manhattan Island, the president escapes
inside an ingenious armored pod that is never explained. He is then held
hostage, along with a cassette tape that contains the means of preventing World
War III. Carpenter's decision to cast Donald Pleasence in the role reminds us
that Pleasence added great credibility and psychic weight to Halloween,
in the role of the psychiatrist. But he never makes a convincing president.
The movie's plot revolves around the decision of the police commissioner (Lee
Van Cleef) to send a convicted criminal into New York to bring the president
back alive. The criminal is a Special Forces veteran (he fought, we learn, at
Leningrad and Siberia). If he gets the president out within 24 hours, he gets a
pardon. If he doesn't, tiny time bombs rupture his major arteries.
The criminal is played by Kurt Russell, a talented veteran of several Disney
movies (and of the title role in Carpenter's TV movie, Elvis). Russell is
so determined to shake his Disney image that he goes whole hog, with an eye
patch, a three-day beard and growl so hoarse he seems to be moaning most of the
time. It's an interesting idea for a performance, maybe, but nothing is done to
give the character human qualities, and so we're allowed to remain detached
about his plight.
A bunch of familiar faces turn up in supporting roles. Ernest Borgnine is the
last of the wise-guy New York cabbies, still looking for fares in the
jungle. Isaac Hayes is the gang leader, Harry Dean Stanton is his personal
advisor, and Adrienne Barbeau is his "squeeze." Making this list, I keep being
reminded of the word I started out with: Ingredients. Everything is here, and it
all works fairly well, but it never quite comes together into an involving story
or an overpowering adventure.
Times (Jul 10/1981/US) By Kevin Thomas
In John Carpenter's stylish, scary and utterly nihilistic
Escape From New York
(selected theaters) it's 1997, and the crime rate is so bad that Manhattan has
been turned into one big sealed-off prison.
The President (Donald
Pleasence) is headed for a summit
conference in Hartford, Conn., when terrorists commandeer Air Force 1, and it
crashes into a Manhattan skyscraper. The President survives by having slipped
into a special escape pod, but he must be rescued within 22 hours to make that
conference in order to blackmail the world into peace with a nuclear fission
formula contained in a cassette in his possession.
At just that moment a much-decorated hero of the Russian and Siberian Wars
turned bank robber (Kurt
Russell) is being told to choose between
execution and imprisonment in Manhattan. The commissioner of the U.S. Police
Van Cleef) tells him if he rescues the
President he will be set free. Russell accepts, but just to make sure he follows
through, Van Cleef has him injected with a drug that will make his arteries pop
unless he meets the deadline and thus will be able to have the drug neutralized
behind him, John Carpenter certainly knows how to work up an audience, but how
deeply you become involved in
Escape From New York will
depend on whether you will be able to root for the relentlessly surly Russell
(who starred in Carpenter's TV movie
Neither he nor anyone else in the film generates a trace of sympathy, but the
youthful audience with whom Carpenter has connected so successfully may like
Russell. How he turned from war hero to robber is left unexplained by Carpenter
and his co-writer Nick Castle, who apparently expect people to identify Russell
with the disenchanted veterans of Vietnam.
Escape From New York is a totally disillusioned
film that presents the government as an absolute monolith dedicated to the
unhesitating and hypocritical exploitation of the individual. Not that the
criminal denizens of Manhattan are any better. There are monthly drops of food
supplies in Central Park, but other than that, the prisoners are completely on
their own in devising fuel supplies and satisfying all their other needs. They
have been reduced to animals engaged in an unrelenting struggle for survival in
the ravaged metropolis.
What Carpenter has projected with his usual effectiveness is a vision of hell on
earth. His view is utterly cynical, but his cynicism is one of exploitation
rather than protest. Along with large doses of brutality with strong visceral
appeal there are sexist and racist overtones. In this, as in so many other
talented filmmakers' work, it's hard not to find Carpenter irresponsible. (He,
no doubt, could argue that he's simply telling it as it is.)
Carpenter's Manhattan is seen almost entirely at night, which makes for an
ominous mood and a good disguise of any limitations of budget. His derelict
prisoners gather in a moldy Art Deco movie palace for seedy live entertainment.
Gladiators with spiked maces fight in a ring set up in a vast old Romanesque
train station lobby. (It's Union Station in St. Louis, where much of the film
The supreme ruler of New York is the menacing Duke (Isaac
Hayes) who tools around in a Cadillac
with crystal chandeliers decorating the hood. His top adviser is The Brain (Harry
Dean Stanton) who lives with his tough
moll (Adrienne Barbeau) in a public library with an oil well pumping up in its
main reading room. There's a crazed old cabbie (Ernest
Borgnine) who somehow has managed to
drive the same cab for 30 years.
Escape From New York is crude, brutal but undeniably vital.
It is the kind of film widely admired in Hollywood because Carpenter and his
colleagues have managed to get every cent of its relatively modest $7 million
budget right up there on the screen. A new special lens and other new gadgetry
have allowed cameraman Dean Cundey to shoot most effectively in darkness, and
production designer Joe Alves has been most imaginative in evoking a Manhattan
in ruins. Carpenter's sense of style is strong enough to sustain some obvious
miniature work, and his eerie, insistent synthesizer score, which he composed
with Alan Howarth, contributes strongly to the film's brooding aura of danger.
Escape From New York is a film of sleekly
impressive surfaces. Its suspense is not really all that inherent but rather
derives from Carpenter's reputation for the unpredictable.
Escape From New York (rated R for strong violence and language) can be
compelling, but it's perfectly understandable that many will not be able to go
along with the corrosive, pessimistic view of humanity that Carpenter projects
with such force.
New York Times (Jul 10/1981/US)
By Vincent Canby
Manhattan is a giant island-prison inhabited by humanity's dregs - murderers,
terrorists, thieves, swindlers, perverts of all persuasions, petty criminals and
people who are permanently disoriented. The place is a zoo without bars, but
there's no way out. The bridges have been mined and walled off. The tunnels are
sealed. The once great buildings are mostly shells, but because these Manhattanites don't read much, and don't care about books one way or the other,
the Public Library on 42nd Street doesn't look to be in quite the state of
disrepair of the other landmarks.
There are no services, no government, no work. The place is a random trash heap.
Life is a permanent scavenger hunt, a nonstop game of hide-and-seek - when
you're "it" you're dead.
This isn't the nightmare of someone who decided to stay in town last weekend but
the startlingly eerie premise of
Escape From New York,
the brutal very fine-looking suspense melodrama by John Carpenter, the man who
directed the horror-classic
and the very good, small budgeted
Assault on Precinct 13.
Escape From New York, which opens today at Loew's State One
and other theaters, is by far Mr. Carpenter's most ambitious, most riveting film
Set in the not-too-distant future (1997), the film works so effectively as a
warped vision of ordinary urban blight that it seems to be some kind of
hallucinatory editorial. It may even remind you a little bit of
Alphaville, if Alphaville had been directed not
by Jean-Luc Goddard but by Frederico Fellini in an uncharacteristically antic
mood. Its economy of style, though, would do credit to Don Siegel.
It is the dark idea of Mr. Carpenter and Nick Castle, with whom he collaborated
on the screenplay, that this nation's crime rate quadruples by the late 1980's,
at which time the United States Government officially takes over what's left of
Manhattan and turns it into a Federal prison. Manhattan becomes a sort of super
Roach Motel: the inmates check in but they don't check out. The place is
supervised from the outside, from a central command post on Liberty Island, by
guards and radar stations on the facing shores and by constant helicopter
patrols. Once a month there is a food drop into Central Park.
At the beginning of the film, Air Force One, carrying the President of the
United States (Donald
Pleasence) to a summit meeting in Boston,
is hijacked and crash-lands near the "old" World Trade Center, where the
President is retrieved and held for ransom (amnesty for all prisoners) by
Manhattan's leading citizen. This is a splendidly nervy, vicious fellow (Isaac
Hayes) who calls himself The Duke of New
York and who drives around the city's ruins with his entourage in a limousine
fitted with crystal chandeliers on either side of the front hood.
To retrieve the President, the Federal authorities coerce a young man named
Snake Plissken (Kurt
Russell), who's on his way into the
prison to serve a life sentence for a gold heist. Snake, we're given to
understand, has been something of a national figure - described as "the hero of
the Leningrad campaign" - before he went wrong. Snake is promised his freedom if
he can get the President out in 24 hours and, just to make sure he doesn't lose
interest in his mission, the authorities have implanted in his neck microscopic
explosives that will go off at the end of the 24-hour period and can only be
neutralized by doctors waiting on the outside.
So much for the plot, which emphasizes that the fate of the human race depends
on Snake and which may not be all together plausible but works efficiently under
these heightened circumstances.
Among the flotsam Snake encounters in his adventures in one of the most ominous
underworlds ever seen on the screen are Brain (Harry
Dean Stanton), who functions as the
Duke's chief demolitions expert, Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), the mistress of
Brain, and an untypically helpful New York cab driver (Ernest
Borgnine) who, typically, manages to find
fuel for his car where none exists.
Though Mr. Carpenter wastes no time on picturesque details, the "look" of the
film is as important as its tightly constructed narrative. Credit must go to Joe
Alves, the production designer, and to Dean Cundey, the cameraman, who worked on
a series of actual locations in St. Louis, Los Angeles and New York, as well as
with some stunning miniature sets, to create a marvelously credible, lost city.
Mr. Russell, who played the title role in Mr. Carpenter's television film
malevolently good as the fallen hero, a man who seems to have had a look into
hell even before he lands in the remains of Manhattan. Mr. Borgnine is more or
less the comedy relief, as well as the magical character who always happens to
turn up with his cab when he's most needed. Mr. Stanton is fine as the
emotionally unreliable Brain, and Mr. Hayes very impressive as the flamboyant
Duke. Is it a coincidence that when he exhorts a crowd of followers about their
coming freedom, he sounds more than a little like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr.? The fact that he's the film's principal villain may not sit well with
some audiences, but then perhaps they'll respond to his style.
Escape From New York is not to be analyzed too solemnly,
though. It's a toughly told, very tall tale, one of the best escape (and
escapist) movies of the season.
Washington Post (Jul 10/1981/US) By Lloyd Grove
Escape From New York - At 20 area theaters.
By 1997, the whole of Manhattan Island will have
become a maximum-security prison, the East and Hudson rivers will brim with
mines, and the view from Jersey will be marred by a 50-foot retaining wall.
Ed Koch wouldn't much like the idea, but it's the premise anyhow of Escape
for New York, a movie that manages, agaist all odds, to be likable and even
fun - if you can stand a little violence.
Director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, the team responsible for
Halloween and The Fog, have come up with another B-movie thriller
whose ambitions get exceeded by respectable results. What you're left to wonder
- what with the film's byzantine plot and wildly stupid thesis (Air Force One
crash-lands in a penal colony; the Feds choose a felon to get the president out)
- is how they were able to bring it off.
Kurt Russell plays the felon, "Snake" Plissken, a strong, silent type in the
tradition of Clint Eastwood. Except that "Snake," an ex-Special Forces man with
a weakness for robbery, is better and braver than Clint because he wears an
eye-patch, which miraculously hasn't the slightest effect on his peripheral
vision. He's helped by the sultry Adrienne Barbeau and the good-hearted Ernest
Borgnine, who's been playing the simpleton in movies so long that he hardly
needs to act it.
Donald Pleasence as the president, by comparison, comes off as a selfish old
fool, who more than deserved the treatment he gets from Isaac Hayes - who's
added a twitching eye to his normal "bad" act - plus assorted other wrongdoers.
Tight editing for the sake of suspense, and whatever amusement you might get
from seeing the World Trade Center as a vacant shell, work to make this movie a
pleasure to watch.
By the way, this business of abusing the president, as in Superman II,
appears to be gaining cachet in Hollywood, which once showed the chief executive
the greatest of deference. Are things so bad that there's some national
catharsis in having the poor fellow smacked around?
Time Magazine (Jul 13/1981/US) By Richard Corliss
It is 1997. Manhattan Island is a maximum-security prison, surrounded by a 50
ft. high wall and containing every scurvy convict in the land. When Air Force
One crashes on the island and the President (Donald
Pleasence) is taken hostage, only one man
has the smarts and guts to get him out alive: War Hero and Master Criminal Snake
Russell). He has 24 hours to accomplish
his mission before the President misses a summit conference and the microscopic
explosives implanted in Snake's arteries are automatically detonated.
On its face - and a stubbly, scarred, scowling visage it is -
Escape From New York
functions smoothly as another of the new action-adventure films. John Carpenter,
who hit it big with a pair of graceful, scary horror movies (Halloween,
here returns to the tones and textures of his earlier garrison melodrama
Assault on Precinct 13:
an apocolyptic shootout between the good-bad guys and the forces of maleficence.
With his runty muscularity and a voice whispered through sandpaper, Kurt Russell
is a sawed-off, charmless Clint Eastwood. Rather than involving the viewer with
the characters, Carpenter seems content to put them on elegant display. Take it
or leave it, love 'em or hate 'em, this is the face of America's future.
Maybe. But it makes more sense to see
Escape From New York
as a ferocious parody of popular notions about Manhattan today - the mugger's
playground and pervert's paradise made notorious in comedy monologues and movies
like Death Wish and Taxi Driver. In
Escape, parking meters are piked with gaping corpse heads,
bridges are mined to kill, the New York Public Library houses an evil genius
named Brain, and Penn Station is littered with train carcasses out of a
brobdingnagian's toy chest. John Carpenter is offering this summer's moviegoers
a rare opportunity: to escape from the air-conditioned torpor of ordinary
entertainment into the hothouse humidity of their own paranoia. It's a trip
Newsweek Magazine (Jul 27/1981/US) By David Ansen
How's this for a pulp premise? It's 1997, and all of Manhattan has been
converted into a maximum-security prison for the country's convicts. There are
no guards inside, just crooks - and the captive President of the United States (Donald
Pleasence), who's been hijacked en route
to a summit conference where the future of the world hangs in the balance. Who
can get him out? The job falls to an eye-patched felon named Snake Plissken (Kurt
Russell), who must successfully complete
his mission in 24 hours or else two lethal time bombs implanted in his neck will
What follows in John Carpenter's dark and dangerous
Escape From New York
will probably satisfy most action-movie addicts. It's a good workmanlike,
unpretentious entertainment. But given his terrific setup, does Carpenter really
make the most of it? The fun in store isn't just a matter of how Snake will
rescue the Prez, but how Carpenter will play with the Big Apple. What kind of
crazy society have the outcasts created? What will the new New York look like?
There's a fine, funny and menacing scene when Snake first arrives and stumbles
into a decrepit, candlelit old theater whose wardrobe has been appropriated by
some old bums for a low-camp Broadway song-and-dance routine. It's a promising
intro, but Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle don't give their imaginations
free reign. Escape from New York gets more conventional as
it goes along, settling for chases and narrow escapes when it could have had
wild social satire as well.
Carpenter has a deeply ingrained B-movie sensibility - which is both his
strength and limitation. He does clean work, but settles for too little. He uses
Russell well, however. His voice muted to a soft rasp, Russell is a compelling
action hero - tough, cynical and sexy. After his title performance in
Carpenter's TV movie
wonderfully fast talking car dealer in Used Cars, this
former Disney child actor has emerged as one of the most versatile leading men
on the scene. And keep your eyes open for Frank Doubleday as Carpenter's most
delicious villain - a wild-haired, androgynous punk who looks like a ghoulish
cross between Mick Jagger and Medusa.
Film Comment (Vol 17/Issue 4/Jul-Aug/1981/US) By David Chute
John Carpenter's sci-fi
action picture Escape From New York was the annual sneak preview offering
at Filmex this year, and the response was tumultuous. Carpenter has a supremely
likeable directorial personality, and I wish I could become a charter member of
his cheering section. But while Escape has all the elements of an
irresistible entertainment, it didn't lift me out of my seat the way it should
have. There is finally something a tad pedestrian about John Carpenter's talent.
There is not enough imaginative instability in his work - the special lilt and
urgency that directors like Walter Hill (in The Warriors), George Miller
(in Mad Max), and Steven Spielberg (in anything) bring to zippy
Alas, Escape From New York is almost more fun to describe than it is to
watch. What it is, I tell people, is "Sergio Leone meets Edgar Rice Burroughs"
(the Mars books, not Tarzan), with a pinch of Terry and the Pirates and
(inevitably) a twist of Howard Hawks. Carpenter's score is his best ever, an
Ennio Morricone pastiche that becomes an aural running gag. Kurt Russell, as a
snarling 1990's outlaw-trouble-shooter named Snake Plissken, doesn't give a
performance in Escape, but does turn in the most precise and
purposeful Clint Eastwood imitation ever; it's a witty stunt that's terrific fun
to watch. As a crowning touch, the iconic Leone regular Lee Van Cleef is second
billed as the Chief of Police of the United States, a gimlet-eyed hard case who
blackmails convict Plissken into undertaking a suicidal rescue mission:
snatching the kidnapped American President (Donald Pleasence) from the concrete
jungle of Manhattan, long since walled off in its entirety for conversion into a
mammoth maximum security prison.
Carpenter pokes fun at his goofy premise in a sarcastic prologue that seems to
shrug: "You know this is silly. I know it's silly. But forget about that.
Trust me. It'll be a gas." If only that note of giddy zest had been sustained.
Carpenter doesn't embellish or personalize the old movie tricks and gestures he
borrows. He just lays them out flat, one careful step at a time; and they're
already so familiar that his caution seems pedantic - some visual shorthand
wouldn't hurt, just to perk things up a bit. Carpenter has irony, but he's not
really a playful director. In Escape, his pace is too solid, too
methodical, for the looney-tunes heroic-fantasy material.
Individual sequences, however, rank with the best set pieces in Assault on
Precinct 13 and The Fog: an attack by New York's subterranean
"crazies," frenzied albinos with kohl-rimmed eyes and filled teeth who swarm out
of manholes and subway tunnels; and a smokey back-lighted boxing match, in the
ruined rotunda at Grand Central Station, that is the most exciting thing of its
kind since the "martial arts" episodes in Hard Times and The Long
Escape From New York should make pots of money. Every 12-year old in
America is going to adore it.
The Times-Picayune (Aug 13/1981/US) By Richard Dodds
It probably wont make Mayor Koch's 10 Best list, but
Escape From New York
(now at area theaters) is trashy fun for those who don't take John Carpenter's
blithely nihilistic view of the future of New York City too seriously.
What Carpenter has done in his new movie (set in 1997) that might make the mayor
unhappy is to turn the island of Manhattan into a maximum-security prison where
the inmates, allowed to roam wild, have developed their own barbaric society
amidst the relics of the former metropolis. Is this a commentary on Crime in the
Big Apple? Is Carpenter pandering to a Middle American distaste for the troubled
Carpenter hasn't displayed much interest in making statements in his previous
wanting simply to entertain, and that's what
Escape From New York
seems to be about as well. But the director (who co-authored the screenplay with
Nick Castle) does show a sardonic side in his treatment of American life 16
years in the future.
If he's pandering to anyone, it's the young moviegoers who will identify with
his anti-establishment hero who disdains all authority, from the whimpering
president of the United States who's being held hostage in New York to the black
leader of the prison society pack. But with his eye patch and a name like Snake
Plissken, this is an anti-hero out of an adult comic book, a kind of surly
right-wing hippie with a screw-you attitude.
Snake Plissken is a war hero (World War III) who's gone bad. Sentenced to spend
the rest of his life imprisoned on Manhattan, he's offered a deal: a full pardon
if he can rescue the president within 24 hours. The president's hijacked jet has
crashed onto the island, and the chief executive is a hostage. He must reach a
crucial summit meeting within 24 hours or the world-wide hostilities may resume.
Snake enters this alien world, making allies and enemies as he searches for his
Carpenter manages to maintain a high level of suspense as the situations seesaw
in and out of Snakes favor. There's also a surprising degree of character
shading for what's basically a chase flick, and a grim sense of humor further
enhances the action.
once a child actor in Disney films, growls his way through the movie as Snake.
It's not a complex performance, but its intensity does have an effect.
Offbeat casting has
Lee Van Cleef,
seen to surprisingly good advantage, as the almost decent prison warden and
as the ominous self-appointed dictator who rules Manhattan.
Harry Dean Stanton
credibly handles the role of a brainy but weaselly prisoner, and even
holds his own as a kindly but anachronistic cab driver. Adrienne Barbeau isn't
so good as Stanton's moll though, and Donald Pleasence
doesn't quite cut it as the milquetoast president. Times may be tough, but this
guy couldn't beat Harold Stassen.
The look and feel of the film are sharp and dark. Its hip cynicism may rub some
the wrong way, but the bleak future Carpenter paints does have its roots in
rising crime rates and world tensions. Escape From New York
is a cartoon with a sneaky bite.
Rolling Stone (Aug 20/1981/US) By
Judging from the number of imitators, the
most influential movie of the Seventies was not Jaws or The Godfather
or even Star Wars - it was John Carpenter's Halloween. Produced in
in 1978 at a cost of $300,000, it went on to gross $60 million worldwide, making
it perhaps the most profitable independent production of all time.
Everything in Halloween recalled other movies, especially Carrie
and Psycho. Only its raw relentlessness was distinctive. There wasn't much
plot (just a mad killer on the loose), the humor was freshmanic, and the
characterizations amounted to dividing teen angels into "good" girls and "bad"
But Halloween's sizzling financial success sent smoke signals to other
independent filmmakers: the easiest way to a quick buck was to show mad killers
terrorizing teenagers. For Hitchcock, the thrill of anticipating a shock
was more entertaining than the shock itself. Carpenter and his imitators were
content to pinch nerves. A deluge of cheap chop-'em-ups followed, from Friday
the 13th to Final Exam. For a large part part of the mass movie
audience, it seems that a general cultural depression has set in - only the
whooshing slice of an axe can keep them awake in the theaters.
In his later films, Carpenter makes this depression an explicit theme, plunging
ever deeper into no-mind nihilism and bringing many of his fans with him. In his
1980 feature, The Fog, the ghosts of a nineteenth-century leper colony
take vengeance on a town whose founding fathers robbed and murdered them. The
message: American history is a bummer. Carpenter's latest movie, Escape from New
York, is an equally pessimistic, dimwitted nightmare of the future.
The follow-the-dots screenplay, by Carpenter and Nick Castle, portrays the
United States in 1997 as a police state with all of New York City turned into a
maximum-security penal colony. The convicts - nearly every one of them a nut, a
junkie or a slimeball - are left alone to roam the rotting Big Apple and stew in
their own rank juices. The fascist police stay outside, quartered (ironically
enough) on Liberty Island. Carpenter has said that his vision of New York as a
rat hole derives from Death Wish, but this movie is more like Dirty
Harry, the ultimate mean-cop film. Like the space mine in Outland.
Manhattan in 1997 is supposed to be a mere extension of our present-day
existence. What Escape From New York tries to tell us that the U.S. is
out of control - its citizens crazy and its cities virtual insane asylums: the
only objective standard and reforming force is the power of a gun.
At the start, a kamikaze revolutionary hijacks Air Force One and crashes in
Manhattan in an attempt to kill the president, who's carrying plans for a
nuclear fusion bomb. The president, however, escapes in a special "pod." The
Liberty Island cops send famous war hero and crook Snake Plissken to retrieve
him. According to Carpenter, this oddly named hero "is a real person. A friend
of mine from high school, kind of a hoodlum." Indeed, Plissken could be
summarized in a yearbook caption: "He's a rebel... loves those weights..." In
Plissken, the image of the high-school delinquent and the righteous strong-arm
tough guy come together. He's all sneer and glare.
As Snake, Kurt Russell looks like Jeff Bridges gone rancid, with pirate-length
hair and a Moshe Dayan eye-patch. He sounds, however, like Clint Eastwood
- he has the same toneless, desert-dry inflections - and he moves like Eastwood
too, with a surly language. The vicious top cop who employs him is played by
Eastwoods' arch nemesis, Lee Van Cleef - the ugly third of The Good, the Bad
and the Ugly.
Carpenter has to rely on borrowed iconography for his effects, since he's not
very good at construction himself. He'll either throw shocks in your face, jump
between subplots to create a frenzy or move the camera along on a smooth track
until he stops for a deliberate jolt. None of his films exposes his
one-dimensionality as grueling as Escape From New York. Even in this
futuristic action- adventure, "crazies" clutch at the characters through manhole
covers and floorboards, threatening to drag them down and eat them. People
disappear, seemingly for good, only to turn up two reels later. Do Carpenter's
movies seem so arbitrary because that's how he sees life?
Life in this film is just the way capitalist philosopher Thomas Hobbes said it
would be in the state of nature: nasty, brutish and short. But there's no
political consciousness behind this movie's tear-it-down spirit. The crooks
walled up in the city have so little humanity that most audiences will probably
wind up rooting for the ruthless, clack-shirted cops. The closest a con comes to
representing the human species is an engineer called The Brain (Harry Dean
Stanton at his most comical, low-key and malevolent). Though he holes up with a
voluptuous "squeeze" (Adrienne Barbeau) in a deserted library, mostly he works
for the Duke - the city's gang warlord and the president's captor, played by
gaudy Isaac Hayes. The Duke dresses like a turn-of-the-next-century Super Fly
and conducts his affairs like a jungle chieftain. And though it's not very clear
what points are being made in this movie (if any), you could take the Duke's
leadership as a racist vision of what happens to city government when blacks
The movie might have some potency if it suggested why society has come to this
unpretty pass. Even Mike McQuay's novelization indicates that a failing economy
and gas warfare have wreaked havoc with the body politic. But Carpenter plugs in
dumb gags where his explanations should be. He said he hoped to make "an
extremely black comedy, reflecting my very dim, cynical view of life." but
there's hardly any mental energy in this movie at all - black, dim, cynical or
There are a few lame running jokes: most everyone stops the hero in the street
and says, "Snake Plissken - I though you were dead!" And whenever anyone calls
him Plissken, he says, "Call me Snake." But Carpenter's tone is so unsteady
you're often not sure whether to laugh or choke. What are we to make of the
character called Cabbie (played by the irrepressible Ernest Borgnine), who
smiles like a lunatic and brags, "I've been driving a cab in this city for
thirty years"? Did he love New York so much he couldn't bear to leave? Carpenter
sure doesn't - the only part of the city he takes full advantage of is the
It's typical of the movie's mingy-mindedness that in order to ensure Snake's
speedy return with the president, Lee Van Cleef injects him with microscopic
time bombs that will blow his body apart unless he returns in twenty-four hours.
The fellow who administers this punishment is called Cronenberg (after David,
director of Scanners), while the Duke's most zombiefied lieutenant, a
pointy-toothed, spiky-haired near-albino is called Romero (after George,
director of Dawn of the Dead.) Carpenter must see himself as part of an
unholy trio - three cinematic outlaws trashing taboo. But he also borrows from
higher sources. Escape From New York aspires to the nighttime
carnival colors of Walter Hill's The Warriors, and there's a brutal fight
with nail-studded baseball bats staged like a clumsy imitation of the street
fights in Hill's Hard Times. Carpenter has used Joe Alves, Steven
Spielberg's production designer on Close Encounter's of the Third Kind,
to fill the cops' flashing instrument panels with electronic pastels. But
Carpenter isn't a visual virtuoso - he's got no rhythm. And as the composer of
his own thudding electronic score, he proves himself to be a real Johnny
one-note as well.
If our cities really do continue to degenerate, and if the young - increasingly
lost in affectless altered states - turn to cynical tough men for ideals, a
movie like Escape From New York will have contributed to the problem.
It's a dumb-cluck Clockwork Orange.
Cinefantastique (Sep/1981/US) By Stephen Rebello
The smart money still rides on the talents of director John Carpenter (Dark
Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween). Sooner or later,
he'll make the breakthrough film that will catapult him solidly into the big
league. Unfortunately Escape From New York, like last summer's The Fog,
isn't it. While it is one of summer's most entertaining pleasure machines,
Escape From New York serves mostly as an appetizer for better Thing(s) to
Carpenter's newest film is a dark, comic vision of the future. The year is 1997,
and Manhattan Island is a maximum-security prison, an end-of-the-line,
gang-infested hell hole. The crime rate has risen over 400% and three million
hardcases are sealed behind the 50-foot containment wall that encircles the
island. Into this maelstrom, the President (Donald Pleasence), while en route to
a peace summit, is force-landed by a terrorist group. Wily, snarling "Snake"
Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given 24 hours to get the President out or be blown
to smithereens by the explosives planted in his neck. All the plot screws are in
place, all right, but Carpenter is amazingly slow in applying them.
Escape From New York, made for a comparatively puny $7 million,
represents Carpenter's uptown move. Although it is graced by the mighty
contributions of production designer Joe Alves (you can practically hear him
goading everyone to THINK BIG), it is the film's smaller, looney-tunes physical
details that give it snap: the ragged, psychotic crazies who roam above and
below the city's hellish streets like human packrats; a scary, almost-love scene
in a scorched-out Chock Full O'Nuts; the lighted candelabra on the hood of "Duke
of New York's" stretch limo; the gallows humor of a left-for-dead theater where
a male chorus sings "Everyone's Coming to New York" in drag; the grated-over
windows of a yellow Cab zig-zagging toward the landmined 69th Street Bridge to
the strains of the American Bandstand theme. This is nice, sly stuff, but
it's not enough to fuel Escape From New York's surprisingly enervated
The broad-stroke star-turns by Harry Dean Stanton, Season Hubley (Russell's
wife), Pleasence and Ernest Borgnine work wonders in fleshing out paltry
characterizations and goosing the stop-start screenplay into gear. There isn't
an actor on this picture who doesn't looked primed for a rousing good time., but
they are all given so little to say that most of them are reduced to attitudes
hiding behind costumes.
Russell, who did such fine work on Carpenter's TV film Elvis, does a mean
parody of Clint Eastwood and, with his eye patch and leather shirt, has terrific
on-screen presence. His performance, however, wears thin after the first twenty
minutes or so, since he has nothing to do but snarl, shoot and run.
Adrienne Barbeau, as a tart-faced gun-moll, trade's a few jibes with the
monotone hero ("Snake Plissken? I thought you were dead!"),but, like so much in
Escape From New York, the sexy banter is dropped and the characters run
breathlessly for a few more reels. By the time Russell and the band of burn-outs
group together for the big effort, even though Carpenter's slambang editing and
action take off like a firecracker it's almost too late for us to care. Doesn't
Carpenter realize we're longing to see some hokey, Hawksian, B-movie
Dean Cundey's cinematography uses Panaglide extensively and has a handsome,
big-movie feel in its use of nighttime landscapes from the inferno. New
World/Venice and Roy Arbogast are to be applauded for their realizations of a
ravaged city where beheadings, detonations of landmines, plane crashes and
molotov cocktails are commonplace.
Finally, for those who find that sort of thing reassuring, Escape From New
York is studded with in-jokes that score on everything from The Bride of
Frankenstein (very wittily) to George Romero to David Cronenberg - enough to
assure anyone picking up on all of them at least six months' membership in the
National Society of Movie Trivia Aficionados.
Films On Screen And Video (Sep/1981/UK) By
With Escape From New York John
Carpenter and his producer Debra Hill turn from domestic horror to nation-wide
devastation; the terror that stalks the small town community escalates into a
criminal community, contained in a New York that has but survived a brutal war
against the United States Police State. From this maximum security prison-city,
escape is impossible; every bridge is mined and walled, the surrounding waters
are filled with electricity and the Statue of Liberty has become another guard
tower from which officers in infra-red goggles blast any prisoners desperate
enough to try to get away. Radio scanners circle the island of Manhattan
ceaselessly and the survivors within are left on their own to prey on each
other, apart from a monthly food drop made by air into Central Park. The year is
1997, and we're Orwell country out of H.G. Wells; the Zombies who have inherited
George Washington's land of liberty are not carnivorous, just mindless and
faceless, dominated by scanners that monitor every movement, and lest we have
any doubt in whose territory we are, two of the characters are called Romero and
A neat touch in what can only be described as satirical sci-fi; a nod from a
giant in the field of mind-blowing horror to his peers, and an almost loving
reconstruction of the kind of fate towards which we could be hurtling as the
crime rate in the American capital rises 400 per cent from 1988 onwards, so that
all traces of humanity are erased from controllers and controlled alike. The
President is Donald Pleasence at his most reptilian; 'Snake' Plissken, the
master criminal on a lethal 24 hour parole who will be terminated unless he
rescues him from his New York captors in time to get to a summit conference
'vital to world survival' is Kurt Russell, complete with eye-patch, leather gear
and an outfit that makes his mission look more like a trip into 'crusing'
territory; and the deadly enemy, the Duke of New York, played by Isaac Hayes as
a black giant whose limousine obviously looted the chandeliers which serve as
headlights from the home of miraculously preserved Liberace, turns out in the
long run to be if anything on a slightly higher moral plane than the President.
At least the Duke cares enough to go to all lengths to secure release for the
captives of the big City, whereas the President's peace mission is just one more
hypocritical ploy in the world power game. This cynical framework encapsulates a
marvellously well-controlled and spine-tingly adventure story, with just one
human touch in the casting of Ernest Borgnine in a prototype performance of all
the lovable, good-hearted Martyesque characters he has played in the past, as
the Cabbie who's guileless, warm hearted and even able to enjoy the unspeakable
drag show on offer at the surviving boite in the city, The Chock Full O'Nuts. Of
course he's too good to live, but he's a joy while he's on.
The cast in general serve the director well, with Mrs Carpenter (Adrienne
Barbeau) the only female accorded maximum exposure as the semi-goodie who rather
inexplicable is prepared to lay down her life for love of Brain, in the coldly
two-timing persona of Harry Dean Stanton. The film rates AA, partly because the
violence is almost all of the Superman - Ray Gun variety - except for two scenes
where the Duke makes Plissken submit to torture by knife and by unarmed combat
with a nail-filled baseball bat - and because the only hint of sex is a briefly
chaste kiss in the Chock Full O'Nuts between Russell and his real-wife Season
Hubley in her tiny guest role as the most comely groupie surviving in the Club,
before she is abruptly terminated by the invading hordes. All this family
cosiness may well be another reassuring touch from the Carpenter-Hill team, to
round out a tough but exciting movie that succeeds in all its sets out to do.
For the charasmatic Kurt Russell, whose laconic growl is located somewhere
between Brando and Bascall and whose performance owes as much to Presley as it
does to Eastwood this could be the one to do as for him as The Gun For Hire
did for Alan Ladd: the up-dated version of the heartless but infinitely sexy
Monthly Film Bulletin (Sep/1981/UK) By Richard Combs
1997. With a four hundred per cent rise in the crime rate. Manhattan Island has
been turned into one vast maximum security prison, encircled by a wall on the
opposite shore. When the U.S. President, hijacked on his way to an important
summit conference, bales out over the city and is taken prisoner by the convict
gangs, security commander Bob Hauk is faced with the problem of getting him out
within twenty-four hours (before the summit is over). He offers "Snake" Plissken,
once a war hero now a felon on his way to the island, the chance of a reprieve
if he carries out the mission (and ensures his compliance by having two
electrodes, set to detonate at tile end of the time period, implanted in his
neck). Landing by glider, Snake makes his way through the ruined city, meeting
Cabbie (who still drives a hack and who recognizes him) and learning that the
President is held by the convict kingpin, the Duke. After a narrow escape from
the "crazies" (who emerge from the subways to hunt after dark), Snake is taken
by Cabbie to meet "Brain", the Duke's adviser. Recognizing Brain as an old
confederate who once betrayed him, Snake forces him (and his 'squeeze' Maggie)
to lead him to the Duke's HQ in derelict railway coaches. But Snake is captured
while attempting to rescue the President, and later put in the ring for lethal
combat with the convicts' champion. Snake wins, and then escapes during the
confusion after Brain and Maggie take the President (Brain has a map which will
allow them to escape over the mined 69th Street bridge). Snake joins up with
them, and from the ensuing chase with the Duke (who hoped to use the President
to secure an amnesty for all the convicts) only Snake and the President survive.
The electrodes in Snake's neck arc neutralised and the President leaves for the
summit - though the precious tape he was carrying has been cynically swapped by
Snake for one of Cabbie's music tapes.
At seven million dollars, Escape From New York is John Carpenter's most
lavish production to date. That, however, is still almost low-budget in today's
Hollywood, particularly for a fantasy set in New York, 1997, when social
desolation has to be specially effected (in St. Louis, Missouri, apparently)
along with electronic sophistication. And for about as long as it takes him to
set his plot in motion, Carpenter generates all the excitement or genuinely
shoestring film-making, the knife-edge dynamism of a project with rather greater
ambitions than it has resources to fulfil. Mainly this is a matter of knowing
just how much of his spectacle to leave to the movie consciousness of the
audience. In his exposition - one or two shadowy figures and a fragment of wall
representing the security forces who man a rampart that now entirely rings the
maximum security prison of Manhattan Island; some swift action in the river
demonstrating the impossibility of escape against a matte of the familiar
skyline - economy and cheek are mixed with true Hitchcockian flair. The trouble
is that Escape From New York has rather too much plot to set in motion,
and by the time Carpenter has finished explaining what has happened to New York,
the plight of the President, and why his anti-hero simply must go through with
the rescue (two electrodes, deceitfully planted in his neck and due to explode
in some twenty-two hours, must be electronically defused...), the film seems to
have run out of steam. Certainly nothing that subsequently happens in the ghost
town of New York could not have been predicted by a computer programmed with the
foregoing exposition. Added to which, the whole plot apparatus revolves around a
detail - the President is carrying a tape about nuclear fission which must be
delivered to a summit conference - so perfunctory it scarcely even qualifies as
a MacGuffin. The beauty of Carpenter's past plot conceits is that they had a
simplicity and compression (even, in the case of Halloween, a dangerously
reductive one) that gave them their charge as pure movie fantasies. But only in
his musical score this time does Carpenter seem to be working to the requisite
relentless pulse. Escape From New York never has an effectively clear
image of what it is about, and looks too often as if Carpenter were simply
trying to spin more material out of the Assault on Precinct 13 situation
(the story was apparently conceived at the same time as the earlier film).
Hawksian echoes also filter through these characters, though without adding
anything to the atmosphere. The pity is that Carpenter, who had shown signs to
(in the underrated Fog) or being able to flesh out his elemental movie
situations with some sense of place and character, retreats here into basic
Saturday matinee juvenilia. Even leading lady Adrienne Barbeau, a New Woman in
The Fog, more or less just goes along for this ride as a 'squeeze'.
In yet another futuristic tingler, Escape From New York
(Avco-Embassy), writer-director John Carpenter proves once more that he is a
very skillful movie-maker but not a very astute judge of his own script. Far
more ambitious than either Halloween or The Fog, Escape From
New York has everything else clicking in on cue - fine effects depicting
Manhattan in 1997 as a kind of maximum-security Devil's Island for vicious
criminals, a flamboyant performance by Kurt Russell, smashingly dramatic
soundtrack by Carpenter and Alan Howarth. One of the flashier new faces in
cinema, best remembered for Used Cars and TV's Elvis. Russell
plays Snake Plissken, an amoral master crook with a patch over his eye and no
visible scruples, who is sent into Manhattan to rescue the President of the U.S.
(Donald Pleasence) after Air Force One crashes inside the walled city. The idea
is pretty good, though Carpenter and his collaborator Nick Castle fail to
develop it much beyond some standard doomsday melodrama. Lee Van Cleef, Isaac
Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau (Mrs. Carpenter,
by the way) all do their bits to make Fun City look lethal. Mayor Ed Koch should
be horrified. Otherwise, it's not dull, just mildly disappointing, for Carpenter
does things so well that he teases his audience into anticipating a grandly
imaginative adventure, then leaves 'em wondering at the end why the really
big lift never came.
Film Review (Oct/1981/UK)
The scene is one of utter desolation. Among piles of garbage in the unbelievably
sleazy streets, weird figures in tattered garments momentarily flit by before
disappearing into darkened alleyways. Piles of rubbish smoulder fitfully,
occasionally bursting into flame which merely serves to heighten the prevailing
picture of decay and squalor. Where are on Earth are we? A clue appears in the
far distance - the silhouette of one of the world's most famous land marks - the
Statue of Liberty. Surely this can't be New York? Alas! it is, and this is what
confronts us in Escape From New York.
The explanation of the holocaust is simple. The year is 1997 and we learn that
in 1988 the crime rate in the United States rose by 400 percent. So widespread
were the riots and disorder that the federal authorities actually declared war
on the criminal fraternity. A United States Police Force was recruited that year
to fight the criminals, and by 1994 the war was over with victory for the
The problem was what to do with the three million convicted criminals from all
parts of the United States, and a drastic solution was agreed upon. The entire
Manhattan Island was turned into an enormous prison, a completely walled-in,
high security penitentiary which was virtually escape-proof. The prisoners have
food air-lifted in to them, but only when a new prisoner arrives do they get any
news of the outside world, and when a prisoner lands in this hell hole, he or
she is there for life.
For two years the system works without a hitch. Then, as usually happens, fate
takes a hand. The US President's plane, Air Force One, is carrying him to an
important international summit meeting, but the aircraft has been sabotaged by a
revolutionary group bent on killing him. The plane crashes on the prison
complex, killing everyone on board except the President who has been put
in an escape pod. He is at once captured by the savage inmates of Manhattan and
held to ransom. The terms? The immediate release of all the three million
Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) leads a squad into Manhattan to
rescue the President (Donald Pleasence), but the prisoners demand the immediate
withdrawal of the police or the President will be summarily executed. As an
earnest of their intentions, the police are shown the President's severed
finger. Hauk has no option but to comply.
Back at his headquarters, Hauk decides to enlist the help of a convict who is on
his way to Manhattan. He is Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) who is offered his
freedom in return for his knowledge of the underworld and his criminal skills to
locate and free the President. Snake reluctantly agrees but Hauk, taking no
chances of a double-cross, injects two tiny capsules into Snake's bloodstream
which will explode and kill him if they are not neutralized within 24 hours -
which is the time Snake has to complete his mission.
Snake is well known to the shady fraternity in Manhattan, including Cabbie
(Ernest Borgnine) who agrees to lead him to the gang boss, "Duke" (Isaac Hayes),
who is holding the President. Locating and freeing the President is one thing,
getting him out of Manhattan with the Duke in his cohorts in hot pursuit is
another - especially with the fast approach of the 24-hour deadline.
Escape From New York was directed by John Carpenter, who also co-authored
the screenplay. Carpenter is one of America's leading young directors, who
showed that a fine new talent had emerged when he came up with Assault on
Precinct 13. He followed with that chiller Halloween and after a
successful spell on TV, he returned to movies to direct, co-script and write the
music for The Fog which was a great box-office success.
In the role of Snake, the toughie who decides to aid the law, Kurt Russell has
come a long way since his days as a child actor in the 'sixties. He appeared in
The Absentminded Professor in 1960 and followed this with many others,
chiefly for Disney. He achieved stardom in Elvis - The Movie, which was
also directed by John Carpenter. Kurt's wife, Season Hubley appeared with him as
Priscilla Presley and incidentally is with him again in Escape From New York
as the girl in the cafeteria, Chock Full o' Nuts - or what remains of it.
Those two veteran stars, Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine, each make telling
contributions to the story. Van Cleef's police chief has an air of toughness
that brooks no quibbling about ethics when he's after his man. Borgnine ekes out
some sort of living as a Cabbie, his cab as ramshackle as the drabness
surrounding him. Another veteran performer is Donald Pleasence who has made
numerous appearances in every type of movies. Here we see him as a much put-upon
President who has to be rescued if world stability is to be maintained.
Escape From New York (Cert AA from Barber International) is a well-made
thriller with a highly professional cast directed with a confident touch. The
special effects are as convincing as they are chilling, sets like the run-down
Madison Square Garden interior being completely believable. The film certainly
doesn't "preach", but it cannot help conveying a warning of what might happen
should law and order break down in towns and cities and violence take over.
A peek into the 'not-so-distant' future
when the crime rate in the States has risen so drastically that the whole of
Manhattan Island, New York, has been turned into a prison. Virtually inescapable
and totally isolated, the prisoners divide into gangs and are left to their own
devices. Into this squalid, horrifying place crashes the plane carrying the
President of the United States. He is taken hostage by the Duke of New York
(played by soul balladeer Isaac Hayes) who demands the release of all the
Enter hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a courageous war veteran (he fought at
the battle of Leningrad) turned master criminal. He's offered a reprieve if he
can rescue the President within 24 hours. Just in case he tries to escape
himself, explosive capsules are injected into his blood stream which will go off
in 24 hours unless neutralised. Gripping stuff indeed.
All from director John Carpenter and his co-writer Nick Castle, a lifelong buddy
of Carpenter's who played the killer in Halloween.
Carpenter's wife, Adrienne Barbeau, who made her film debut in The Fog,
plays one of the prisoners as does Kurt Russen's wife Season Hubley. The couple
met and married while working on Carpenter's Elvis The Movie.
CARPENTER'S movie is tailor-made for 1981 with so much civil strife about. All
the prisoners dress in punkesque pirate fusion, prowling the run-down streets,
dodging the over-turned cars, killing, mobbing and terrorising their fellow
Kurt Russell plays Snake with a mean look, gruff whisper, patched eye and a lot
As Snake is waiting to be transported to the prison a voice comes over the
tannoy announcing that the shuttle will leave for the prison in two hours during
which time the prisoners may be cremated on the premises if they so desire.
The problems of trying to film a deserted New York proved a difficult task and
Carpenter had to resort to models which look decidedly unrealistic. Luckily
they're only used for the first ten minutes or so.
A thoroughly enjoyable futuristic story from John Carpenter, the man who has
given us so many movie thrills.
John Carpenter's "repertory company" has
just issued its first science-fiction-oriented film, and as with Carpenter's
The Fog, Escape From New York exemplifies a curious reversal on MPAA rating
mores: It is a picture of "PG" content hiding behind the audience draw prompted
by an "R" rating.
Escape's anti-hero is one Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell ), a criminal
dragooned into rescuing the President from Manhattan Island - now a maximum
security prison for the losers of a civil war with the United States Police
Force circa 1997. Producer Debra Hill calls Escape an "action comedy" -
this unlikely classification being about the only way to gracefully excuse the
mishandling of such a dynamic basic story concept. Lack of talent as a rationale
is out; Carpenter is no incompetent. Yet his approach to this material seems
terribly naive, making his action predictable and his comedy (as such) forced
and misleading. The forcefulness of his scenario - the futuristic prison-island
- is not backed up with anything substantial, plotwise, except a lot of busywork
Story has never been Carpenter's strong point. He admits Halloween was
nailed together from a two-word story concept ("babysitter murders"), while
The Fog never really embellished beyond its own ghost-story teaser. The
problem is inflation of economically basic and sinewy story-hooks to such a
girth that their inherent defects become too big to ignore.
In Escape, the hard conflicts among central characters one would expect
to result from the brutal reality presented just don't exist. The hinted-at
showdown between Snake and Hauk (Lee Van Cleef as the facist police official who
pressgangs Snake into the rescue) never really happens, and the one between
Snake and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes, recalling the name of the pub
frequented by Clockwork Orange's droogs, as Manhattan's baddest gang
overlord), when its not being handled by subordinates, is cut short by sadistic
intervention on the part of the President (Donald Pleasence). The triad of
opposed wills and power among Snake, Hauk, and the Duke does not spark; what
drives them to their differing (yet not dissimilar) callings remains unknown,
irrelevant, in fact, to the story of the title. The actual Escape From New
York is what this film is about, and it pursues that end alone, with
Mission: Impossible singlemindedness. It is a mechanical sort of narrative,
dwelling on how ends are accomplished, while entirely bypassing motivation, the
By ignoring the duties of honor - or retribution - that would drive such
characters, Carpenter falls short of the Sergio Leone idiom he has chosen to
emulate in Escape. The formidable presence of Van Cleef, and the
imposition of a Clint Eastwood rasp on Snake's voice, seem more spaghetti parody
than hommage. Ironically, Carpenter already describes his forthcoming actual
western, El Diablo, as a "gothic."
Mechanically, then, it is no surprise when an entire company of peripheral
players is blatantly set up for a countdown/bumpoff that betrays itself as mere
action spicing for the climactic escape we knew Snake would make all along. Much
point is made of the suicidal impossibility of crossing New York's
wreckage-and-mine-studded 69th Street Bridge to freedom, but the comicbook
bloodbath that follows defies every rule established in advance. The death of
Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) would be tragic if it weren't so offhandedly jokey (his
cab breezes through two direct mine hits to be blown cleanly in half by a third,
which all escapees save him survive). His demise is reduced to the byproduct of
a Keystone Kops bit; and what deterrent do those mines represent if it takes
three to stop a car? Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), keeper of a map of the mines'
location only he can read, blunders into one. And Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), the
only peripheral still alive at this point, milks a sixshooter for at least ten
slugs in true Western style when she blows away the Duke's pimpmobile, which has
chased them at high speed unimpeded by the same mines Cabbie was only able to
dodge using the map. Snake and the President are still running on the bridge
blindly, but the mines, having served their purpose by snuffing everyone
extraneous, are no longer lethal.
The snapshot of Snake's personality offered after all the cliff-hanging
nonsense is what Escape should have been about. His minor, though
personal, triumph implies that life for him in the USPD's police state is no
different than squatting by a garbage campfire in a Manhattan sewer. He is oddly
compassionate (thankfully, he doesn't waste every crook in sight ala The
Ultimate Warrior), yet unsympathetic to the crude comradeship Hauk offers
later; they are, like their namesakes, eternally opposed predators. But this is
a parting shot, not the film's central concern.
Smoothing Escape's plot drawbacks are conviction-laden performances,
sterling model work, and Carpenter's most driving and textured musical score
ever. He also forments several successful running gags about Snake's Marvel
Comics name, and dubs a pair of the film's resident whackos after fellow genre
filmmakers - "Romero" (George) is the Duke's demented, spacepunk hatchetman,
while "Cronenberg" (David) is the doctor who injects head-explosives into
Snake's main arteries. The inspired casting of character-types Borgnine and Van
Cleef are due to the always-pleasing genre savvy Carpenter consciously injects
into each of his films. Often, his own craftsmanship makes slipping past the
subsidiary illogic of his misfired premise easy (like why the immense silencer
on Snake's Ingram gun doesn't work, or whether a one-eyed man would have the
depth perception necessary to land a glider atop the World Trade Center in the
Starburst (Oct/1981/UK) By Phil Edwards
The year is 1997 and Manhattan Island has been turned into a maximum security
jail. The bridges to the island have been either sealed or are mined. The good
guys are keeping the bad guys locked up in the biggest prison in the world.
The president of the USA is on a desperate flight to a meeting which will decide
the fate of the world, with Russia and China on the brink of the apocalyptic
confrontation. His plane is taken over by terrorists in mid-flight and is
crashed into Manhattan Prison. Big problem. How to get the Prez out in time for
This is the basic premise of John Carpenter's latest film and right away I'll
say that it is his most assured work, full of the kind of touches one has come
to expect from this most independent (outside of David Cronenberg) of film
makers. However Escape From New York is also the most frustratingly
disappointing of John Carpenter's features, but I'll get to that in a bit.
With the President down among the ruins of humanity the cops fly in their Dolby
helicopters. They are met by a super-weirdo, Romero (Frank Doubleday), who
presents them with one of the president's fingers and the news that the man is
being held by the Duke of New York. Further instructions will follow.
Police Commissioner Hauk, played by Lee Van Cleef in his best reptilian manner,
remembers that Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is on his way to Manhattan Prison.
Snake is a heavy dude. Not only was he a hotshot pilot in the last big
bang, he's also a black belt in karate, hasn't watched for about six years and
wears an eye patch. Snake gets his name from a rather large cobra which is
tattooed on his stomach. As this decoration grows up from the waist band of his
combat pants it's likely that Snake has other outstanding attributes. But this
is a AA certificate movie (and review) so we'll leave that there. He's also
equipped with a delivery that reminded me of a young Marlon Brando - "Call me
Sssnnake" he hisses several times.
Snake gets the job with the promise of a free pardon, but just to make sure he
stays in line a couple of explosive charges are implanted in his neck - by a
character called Dr. Cronenberg no less. He's got 20 hours to get the Prez out,
and if he doesn't then the mini bombs will go off, blowing Snake's arteries out
of his neck. Pretty inventive stuff, thanks to the script of Carpenter and Nick
Castle, who of course played The Shape in John's Halloween.
Enough of the plot, you all want something left for your money. Escape is
like an outrageous comic strip, though finding a comparison to Snake Plissken in
comicdom is a little difficult. Carpenter tells us just enough about this good
apple gone bad to make us like him enough to feel some kind of identification,
though not in the same way as Indiana Jones in Raiders, for example. A
more fitting comparison would be with Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" from
the Dollars movies of the Sixties. A totally amoral hero. Just right for the
Carpenter has peopled Escape with some fascinating characters. There's
Brain played by the excellent Harry Dean Stanton. All nervous energy, Brain has
always lived on his wits and is obviously the smartest man in the prison, living
in the remains of the New York Public Library, an oil well pump casually
installed in the massive apartment he shares with Maggie played by the
delectable Adrienne Barbeau.
Isaac Hayes makes a pretty good job of the Duke of New York, at once threatening
and somehow likeable. Duke drives around in an armoured Cadillac, fitted out
with chandeliers for headlamps. Fun, but not really that much different from
some of the outrageous autos one sees in New York today.
The President is played by Donald Pleasence, an odd bit of casting that really
works. Poor old Donald is treated terribly. Beaten up, finger sliced off, used
for target practice, dressed up in a long blond wig and generally humiliated. Bu
the manages to come out at the end OK, in time to show himself as just another
creepy Prez. But Snake has thought of this and his final retribution on the
ungrateful man is complete. It's also one of the best gags in the movie.
Escape From New York looks terrific, thanks to the production design of
Joe Alves. It's about time somebody recognised the talents of this artist. Alves
was responsible for Jaws and, most spectacularly, Close Encounters. Aided
by Carpenter's usual cinematographer Dean Cundey, Alves presents the ruins of
Manhattan Island as a tribal wasteland.
The film is also a big special effects movie, although most of the spectacular
effects were executed in a tiny area in Roger Corman's effects facility in
California. There are several incredibly artificial model shots which despite -
or because of - their very phoniness imbue the film with much of its atmosphere.
The flight into New York by glider and the landing on top of the derelict Trade
Towers is masterfully handled. A thrilling combination of computer graphics and
As with all Carpenter films there are some well staged set pieces involving
action and stunts. Once down in the human jungle, Snake meets all kinds of
weirdoes and gangs. Perhaps the most frightening are the Crazies - another tip of
the hat to Romero The Crazies live in the deserted subways and the sequence in
which they emerge through the sewer covers and up through the floorboards of
crumbling buildings anybody who has suffered at the hands of Chock Full O'Nuts
will get a laugh - is genuinely creepy.
Likewise, a gladitorial battle in which a badly wounded Snake slugs it out with
spiked baseball clubs with a mountain of a man to the bloodthirsty cheers of
Duke's gang is well staged, though if keeping the audience a trifle distant. The
climax of that particular battle is nasty to be sure but once again a comic
violence element is there to defuse it.
So what's disappointing about Escape From New York? I liked the film a
lot. It demonstrates Carpenter's growing ability to handle increasingly bigger
budgets and bigger casts. Like The Fog it shows that the director is in
control of complicated effects sequences. It bodes well for Carpenter's next
film, a remake of Hawks' The Thing. From all reports Billy Lancaster's
script is tough, hard and terrifying. l can't wait for that one.
But there were times during Escape when I wanted to scream at the screen.
The truth is that Carpenter, with this film, blows more opportunities to wind up
suspense than he takes up. The sequence with the Crazies is, as I've already
said, really quite frightening. However it ultimately goes nowhere. It builds
and builds with hairsbreadth escapes and stunts and ends with a totally defused
The same thing happens in the final chase sequence. All the bridges leading off
the island are supposedly impassable, except for one for which Brain has a map
showing the location of the mines. With the seconds ticking away for Snake the
chase gets underway. Sure, mines go off and there is some heated screaming about
heading left and right and people die. But somehow it just doesn't carry any
suspense. You just don't care when people meet their bloody deaths people that
Carpenter has carefully built up into rounded, likeable characters.
Likewise the final confrontation between Snake and Duke. It should have been
terrifying, real edge of the seat suspense. Of course you know that Snake win
win, he's too interesting a character to die after so much hard work. The
sequence just doesn't hang together. It's clumsily staged and badly edited.
As much as I liked the film it has given me a doubt about Carpenter's ability to
write and direct endings for his films. The doubt started with Halloween.
At the time the climax seemed suitable. In retrospect, I'm not sure. The doubt
was compounded by The Fog. Like Escape that film just ran out of
steam. The tacked-on ending showed through. The best pans of The Fog were
at the beginning of the film. The sequence on the fishing boat held a
claustrophobic horror as did the scene in which Adrienne Barbeau was attacked by
the ghosts atop the lighthouse.
And so it is with Escape From New York. The film just runs out of
excitement. The opening is well-staged. Various set pieces are put together in a
masterful fashion. Images, like the Crazies rising from the underground, the
superb throwaway shot of a disembodied head stuck on a parking meter, the single
flash of a figure in the supposedly-deserted Trade Centre, the somehow touching
sequence of prisoners putting on a drag vaudeville show in the ruins of a
theatre are all terrifically evocative of a desolate futureworld. It's almost
wasted with the badly-staged last ten minutes of the film.
Do see Escape From New York. Carpenter is an important talent. It is a
pleasurable if sometimes frustrating experience to watch that talent grow and
mature. With Escape he has almost thrown off the ghost of his inspiration
Howard Hawks. There is little of Hawks in Escape, apart from one running
gag. But there is also little of that cloying movie consciousness which so often
intruded into Carpenter's films in the past.
Like David Cronenberg, Carpenter is an emerging artist. Their films have nothing
in common other than that they are two people who fought in their own ways to
make the type of film they wanted.
The Brood, not Scanners, was Cronenberg's breakthrough film. In
the same way Escape From New York is John Carpenter's. Sixty per cent a
perfectly realised film. It's my guess that The Thing will add to that.
The Movie (Nov/1981/UK)
By Philip Strick
John Carpenter's Escape From New York
is the most elaborate illustration yet of the siege theme that recurs through
the director's work. The black monoliths of the Manhattan skyscrapers, dark and
(from a distance) seemingly lifeless, are like the ultimate beleaguered
enclosure of the twentieth century, set about with military-style patrols,
searchlights, radar, minefields and the unceasing buzz of helicopters laden with
formidable weaponry. The urban prison - a concrete trap complete with its
muggers, its unmoving carpet of traffic pumping out noise and pollution, its
over-population by day, its uncanny emptiness by night - is a familiar image to
thousands of city-dwellers. For most of them, their environment
already has elements of detention and punishment, and Carpenter's idea must
sound echoes of familiarity if not of whole-hearted recognition.
The echoes also come, of course, from cinema itself. Street-gang movies like
The Warriors (1979); the sidewalk-vendetta stories That originated in
Thirties gangster films and made their way, via The Godfather (1972), to
horrific desperadoon-the-rampage films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi
Driver (1976) and Fingers (1978); even one-manversus-the-whole-town
dramas like The Phenix City Story (1955) and Invasion of the
Bodysnatchers (1978) - all have prepared the movies for a portrait or the
city as evil entity.
But there is more than one side to the siege presented in Escape From New
York. Once the President has been stolen into the dark heart of New York, it
is his colleagues outside the city who are under pressure. They too are in a
trap, marked by the seconds ticking by, which will destroy them unless it is
sprung. The film is, in fact, constructed around a series of no-wayout
situations - Manhattan itself ('Once you go in.' announces a voice at the start
of the film, 'you don't come out'); the capture of the President (shut like some
prehistoric embryo into the egg of his survival pod); the predicament of the
Police Commissioner ('One more step,' hisses the kidnapper, waving a severed
Presidential finger, 'and he dies'), which he promptly inflicts on Snake
Plissken by pumping him with explosives that will detonate if the mission is not
accomplished; and the global time-limit hanging over them all.
Snake's adventures are in serial cliff-hanger style, one dead-end after another.
He is trapped by a horde of 'crazies' in a desperate shoot-out; his getaway car
is backed into a street blockade by gangs with a taste for decapitation; he
finds himself in a boxing ring with a giant (resembling Flash Gordon's enemy,
the Emperor Ming), while a vast audience demands his blood; and finally he hangs
spotlit halfway up a wall, clear target for the killer just beneath him. And
since he is portrayed as a mumbling, grumbling, eye-patched mercenary Snake
makes no special demands on the spectator's sympathy; nor does the cowering,
ineffectual President at his side. The only reason for willing his escape is the
modest hope that international catastrophe can thereby be averted, although it
is by no means clear how the vital cassette tape, once recovered, is going to be
able to achieve this (it is a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, in fact an otherwise
irrelevant pretext for issues more central to the story).
The whole concept resembles yet another cinematic tradition, that of the
detached band of hired gun-slingers playing one political faction against
another and walking blandly away from the resultant holocaust at the end. The
presence of Lee Van Cleef as the police commissioner, and his long-distance
partnership with Snake, with whom he finally sides against the Establishment,
has strong affinities with Sergio Leone's tales of invincible gunmen versus
terrorized towns - films which starred Clint Eastwood. Leave them to destroy
themselves, runs the message, and ride with a whole skin into the sunset.
A story like many others then, but does it, in Carpenter's hands, have anything
new to offer? With its pace and drive, Escape From New York gives the
strong impression of a film-maker in a hurry, experimenting with ideas,
situations, characters, images. What could have been the definitive exploration
of what one science-fiction writer has termed 'The Coming Destruction of the
United States", the logical next step in post-Vietnam paranoia and
anti-authoritarian gunplay in the glittering arena of high technology becomes
instead a quirky, back-street, fast, furious and hell-bent for somewhere else.
Carpenter's destination, once he has achieved his first target as the prolific
creator of commercial successes, will be some very fine films indeed. Until
then, the cinema will have to settle tor lively, spectacular compromises like
Escape From New York.
Chicago Tribune (1981/US) By Gene Siskel
In Superman II the President of the United States ultimately triumphs
over foreign invaders; in Escape from New York the President repels a
series of attack from a bunch of minorities - blacks, Hispanics, street crazies.
What's going on here? Seems like a revival of the Right.
But that may be taking both films too seriously, because Escape From New York
is as much of a comic book story as is Superman II. In fact, Escape
is a bam-zoom-off melodrama filled with quaint broadbrush characters who speak
in shorthand. It's the latest feature from John Carpenter, best-known as the
director of the horror classic Halloween.
Escape is a futuristic thriller that wisely is long on thrills and short
on futurism. Most science-fiction films flip-flop that equation and wind up
being boring essays on the human condition. Not so with Escape.
The intriguing premise of the film is that in the year 1997 New York City has
been turned into a prison facility to accommodate the nation's ever-increasing
criminal population. A 50-foot wall has been built around all five boroughs.
Arriving prisoners are given a choice before they enter: Cremation or
If they chose to enter New York - a hideously grubby place that looks remarkably
like today's bombed-out South Bronx - they will not be placed in conventional
jail cells. On the contrary, prisoners are free to roam the city at will. The
only thing they have to fear is each other. Packs of starving inmates roam
litter-strewn streets like mad dogs, killing and eating the slow, the weak, and
Whereas the gang-fight film The Warriors presented one long street
battle, Escape From New York lays a story on top of its mayhem. As the
film opens, an unidentified radical group has hijacked Air Force One, the
President's plane, and is about to send it careening into a Manhattan
skyscraper. The President (English actor Donald Pleasence) manages to jettison
himself away from the crash, but he winds up being taken captive by a vicious
gang leader known as the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes). The Duke lives in
deserted Grand Central Station, manufactures fuel, and rides around in a
boat-sized white Cadillac with gaudy chandeliers instead of headlights. His
chief lieutenant looks like a cross between a punk rocker and the Bride of
Aware of some of what's happened, the President's aides are in a dither. The
chief executive was on his way to Cambridge, Mass., to participate in a crucial
summit conference on nuclear weapons with the Chinese and Russians; his delay
or-shudder at the thought! - his death could spell the end of the world.
But into every bad movie situation a good guy must fall, and into the maddening
mess of Escape From New York falls the character of Snake Plissken (Kurt
Russell, the onetime Disney comedy star who has since grown into adult roles,
including Elvis Presley in the recent, celebrated TV film). Plissken is a
hard-as-nails type, a disaffected Vietnam veteran who is down on authority,
including that of the President.
Plissken, a one-time war hero, apparently has fallen on hard times, and is to be
sent to the New York prison. But... if he can save the life of the President in
the next 22 hours, then New York's nasty Police Commissioner (Lee Van Cleef, who
continues to wear a ring in his ear) will grant him a pardon.
And so, in short order, it's Plissken versus the street crazies.
Along the way, Plissken meets a whacked-out cab driver (Ernest Borgnine, not
overacting for a change), a warped wizard (Harry Dean Stanton, a fabulous
character actor), and a buxom gun moll (Adrienne Barbeau, who is a terrible
actress. If she ever buttoned her blouse for a role, she'd probably forget her
Escape is not without its faults. Many of its special effects are cheap
looking. A windswept jet is particularly flimsy, and some of the mockups of New
York are quite obvious for these days of special effects wizardry. Also, the
film is pleasantly blood-free until, inexplicably, the last two shoot-outs.
But the main thrust of the story conquers all of the faults, even an obvious
ending with a nonsensical twist. We root for this guy Plissken to storm the city
and save the President (even though the President is played by an Englishman,
which is strange because the President, by law, must be a native-born American).
That's just a quibble, however. Escape From New York is yet another
entertaining action film in what continues to be the most remarkable summer
season of movies I've encountered.