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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 efforts).

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 marvelous look.

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 mounted.


SoHo News (Vol 8/Issue 41/Jul 08-14/1981/US) By Veronica Geng


IT'S 1997. The entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security penal colony - perimeters walled, bridges mined, food dropped in by copters, prisoners abandoned to their own devices. When Air Force One crashes inside this nightmare, the authorities send in Snake Plisskin, a famous war hero with two Purple Hearts "from Leningrad and Siberia," youngest man ever decorated personally by the president, and just caught robbing the Federal Reserve Depository - offering him a pardon if he rescues the president within 24 hours.

It's 1981, and the summer movie circuit has finally come up with the hip alternative to Raiders. It's Escape From New York, a nocturnal adventure pulsing with the personalities of its star, Kurt Russell, and its director, John Carpenter.

Russell's Snake Plisskin is a hero whose name strikes respect into the hearts of prison wardens and opens any door in the underworld. There's a running gag where each cynical or despondent criminal he meets says in astonishment, "You're Snake Plisskin? I heard you were dead." The mere fact of his survival means that civilization as we've known it hasn't bit the dust quite yet. Propping it up are the most glamorous pillars ever to stand between us and apocalypse: Kurt Russell's thighs. On his entrance into the office of the U.S. Security Police Commissioner (Lee Van Cleef) on Liberty Island, Snake is teasingly shadowed in the doorway, visible only from the waist down, in dashing knee-high boots that set off his long-boned, muscular thighs in gray-and-white-patterned camouflage pants as tight as baseball britches. In fact, Russell used to play minor-league ball, and his Snake, the last American hero, who wears an ancient brown leather jacket like a treasured baseball glove and is forced to defend himself in gladiatorial combat in the ruins of Madison Square Garden with a baseball bat.

Escape's rich premise doesn't expand into a study of anarchy or a satire on contemporary New York; it keeps narrowing, with Snake at the point. Russell makes it move and develop with his increasingly physical acting. Finally, wounded in one thigh, racing against the time limit, he lopes desperately through the night streets, using one hand to drag his injured leg behind him, hauling the action like a pitcher in late innings determined to go the distance. This is the most dynamic below-the-waist movie acting since Toshiro Mifune quit stripping down to his samurai didies.

Russell had plenty of practice as the star of Carpenter's Elvis - surely the best performance in the history of television, in the best TV movie ever made (recently rebroadcast as a fitting substitute for Monday-night baseball during the strike). Under the sexuality, Russell's Elvis had an innocent sincerity - always the sad, chaste boy who sang "Old Shep" to his high school class. Back then, Russell's dimples, long cleft chin, and modeled, slightly sneering lips looked eerily unreal; his features seemed soft but enameled, as if he (a former child actor) had never done anything but make movies and had physically adapted to survive under bright artificial light. This was perfect for Elvis, the creature of fame. In Used Cars, Russell brought the mixture of innocence and falseness to his childishly venal car-lot con man, who exuberantly fixed women with his gaze and said "Trust me." He used his mannequin look to stay on the surface of his masculinity and give it a funny tinny quality.

In Escape From New York, with his slick features roughened by a scraggly moustache and beard and flowing hippie hair, and one of his veiled eyes under a black patch, he's so deep inside his masculinity that he doesn't have to say "Trust me." Even if you once crossed Snake (as did his old buddy, played by Harry Dean Stanton, who turns up living in the New York Public Library with his "squeeze," Adrienne Barbeau),  you can trust him to give you a second chance. (But three strikes and you're out.)

Snake is honor betrayed. He's been exploited by warmongers and now he's being exploited again by the police - a victim who won't go down, more sympathetic than the movies' action-aristocrats, and with a more emotional smokiness in the de rigueur laid-back voice. It's a hurting voice. As gimpy, black-eye patched, embittered war veterans go, he's a beaut - the morally driven John Heard character in Cutter's Way pitched at the sexy adventure level of Sean Connory's 007. Russell makes Escape more than a romp. He makes you believe that the weight Snake drags along behind him with those powerful thighs is a moral weight - the accumulating memory of honor and of a society where honor once had a place, a society he's too young to have known. This isn't great acting, but it's a star turn the likes of which you won't see on any other first-run movie screen.

Escape From New York is the first of John Carpenter's movies to have a lone male hero, the sort of character more or less identified with a director-writer's personality. (I'm not counting Elvis, of course, a bio written by others.) Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 were about small-group dynamics; in Someone Is Watching You, Halloween, and The Fog, the heroes were women. Escape was written for Kurt Russell, but Snake's salvaged self-containment and methodical, linear persistence are pure Carpenter, too.

Carpenter likes tight rules (time frames, isolation, arbitrary evil) and limited means (silence, fog, darkness) that pressure his characters and himself. Instead of being distracted by the problems of making movies inside or outside the studio system (he's chosen the latter), he's thrived on them, using budget restrictions to focus himself, form his simplicity of style, and keep his independence. His movies have a hampered grace, like Snake's quiet, sinuous way of reaching across the police commissioner's desk for a cigarette and lighting it with a match while wearing handcuffs.

Escape has this lovely Carpenter tone of self-sufficiency and poise. It's a pleasure to trust him as he takes his time, laying out the situation and the geography: Liberty Island at night, with the Statue of Liberty watching over two escapees from New York paddling on a raft, warned from a helicopter to go back; Manhattan ringed by jewel lights, ironically like the "precious stone set in the silver sea" in Shakespeare.

When Air Force One is hijacked and crashed (as a political gesture by a woman revolutionary), and then Snake flies a sportscar-sized black Gullfire glider into Manhattan, we see the glittering gray water and the approaching skyscrapers, alternating with colored geometric position-diagrams on video screens. As Carpenter has admitted, one a
$7 million budget (lavish for him) he isn't going to make you believe you really see a glider landing on top of the World Trade Center. But the effects are lovingly executed, in tune with the movie's spare elegance, and enjoyable because he doesn't insist that they blow your head off.

The night cityscapes of ruin (mostly filmed in St. Louis) through which Snake tracks the president by means of an electronic bracelet, to one of Carpenter's own sad, throbbing synthesizer soundtracks, have a mournful beauty. The black isn't the hard, glossy, surface blue-black of Thief but a vaporous black you can feel enveloping you and the whole city, all the way into the distance. (The cinematographer, Dean Cundey, also did the northern California seascapes with black trees and white foam, and fog, in The Fog.) Almost the whole movie takes place at night, and the single scene of outdoor daylight - a food drop in Central Park, with prisoners stretching their hands up to the helicopters - is a refreshment that's almost painful. It makes you feel the returning darkness as the prisoners must - a punishment and a refuge.

Carpenter doesn't reach for impact beyond what he's set out to do. There are scenes in Escape that other directors would bloat into self-aggrandizing set pieces: a slow ride in a broken-down car through a gauntlet of debris-throwing thugs on what remains of Broadway; the Madison Square Garden scene, with four huge torches at the corners of the fight ring dispersing light through hazy gloom. He may be the only director who knows when to stop showing the elapsed-time countdown on a digital watch.

As a screenwriter, though, he lets too much go. The character of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) is no more than a twitching eye-tic and a pimpmobile with crystal chandeliers for headlights. And I'd like to have seen a little more of the prisoners' domestic lives than Adrienne Barbeau's undies drying on a wooden laundry rack in the library. The first question raised in your mind by the movie's premise has to be: left to anarchy, how do these prisoners sort themselves out and live? It begins to be answered in an early scene when Snake sees a man exit furtively from a building; he goes in through dark halls and abandoned rooms, making his way toward distant, echoing music, and finds himself in a hall with theater seats where a scattering of derelicts sit watching a line of men on a stage in can-can drag, kicking and chorusing through a musical-comedy number with lyrics like "This is your life and it's great!" in the wobbly collegiate Mask & Wig style. There's entertainment even in the lower depths: the scene is funny and moving, almost worthy of Sullivan's Travels. And Carpenter doesn't milk it (though Ernest Borgnine's bouncy, eye-rolling audience reaction does). If the movie touched us in more ways than this, with the fragility and endurance of culture, Snake would carry an even more emotional weight.

Carpenter's cowriter here was Nick Castle (who did some effects on Dark Star and played the masked boogeyman in Halloween); before this, he's written alone or with his producer, Debra Hill. Maybe he needs some new writing blood. With material as dense and powerful as the life of Elvis, Carpenter's plain clarity as a director worked to create emotion. He reclaimed Elvis for us by stripping away the encrusted legend and nostalgia, going back to the young man, the music, and our teenage responses; each simple scene came as a fresh surprise.

The dangers in his clean-genre-rules writing are overcaution and repetition. There's long been something conservative in his acceptance of pure evil as a convenient premise. Escape doesn't revel in gang warfare, like The Warriors, but almost all the prisoners come off as monolithically evil (though scenes like the Central Park food drop suggest that the authorities have made them that way). One hissing, androgynous member of the Duke's gang - like Mick Jagger left in formaldehyde for a year - must represent something so horrible I don't want it explained. This character enjoys dressing up the captive president (Donald Pleasence) in a long platinum-blonde wig. I don't think Carpenter equates effeminacy with evil - he just bites off more than his story lets him chew.

But he's trying to find ways to let images express what he has to say, and he has his own subtle sense of proportion. In Escape, he's not interested so much in pictures of life under the anarchy as he is in the physical path taken by Snake, the war veteran, through a city that resembles a war zone to rescue the man who had sent him into war. The silences and omissions, even the glancing treatment of the confrontation between these two men, are powerful - like the traumatized speechlessness of the father who set off the assault on Precinct 13 by going there for help when his daughter was killed, and who stayed as silent witness to the killers' attack with silenced guns. Escape is often so visually eloquent it could be silent but for Russell's husky whisper and a surprise burst of music that wraps up the plot.

John Carpenter's fans (his true fans, not the leeches who sucked the blood from Halloween and moved on to the plasticbaggied plasma of his imitators) are right to feel a personal affection for him. From his first feature, the sci-fi satire Dark Star, his presence in his movies has been one that a young audience can identify with and still respect, even while he's working to find his way. (The same is true of Brian De Palma, who has inspired a one-of-us fondness that's different from even the emotional admiration for Martin Scorsese, who with Mean Streets was already an artist.)

Carpenter has so much character that even when his movies seem schematic, they're not cartoons or anonymous blueprints but drawings by a familiar hand, alive with his integrity, modest temperament, and delight in craftmanship. He appeals to the stylish underdog in people - the part of us that wants to think we can rise above our circumstances by saying "Got a smoke?" in a signature way. Watching him take his time is one of the best pleasures of moviegoing these days.


Time (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 Plissken (Kurt 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, The Fog), 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 worth taking.


Newsweek (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 explode.

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.



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 comic-book imagery.

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 Riders.

Escape From New York should make pots of money. Every 12-year old in America is going to adore it.


Rolling Stone (Aug 20/1981/US) By Michael Sragow


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" girls.

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 take over.

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 otherwise.

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 skyline.

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.               


Ares (Issue 10/Sep/1981/US) By Christopher John


After the success of the small-budget horror film, Halloween, everyone keenly awaited to see what director John Carpenter would do next. When the movie, The Fog came out, cries were raised that Carpenter's career was over; those of little faith announced that he was a one-trick director who had already shot his bolt. These people had obviously forgotten his earlier works, such as Assault on Precinct 13, and Elvis. They must have also been extremely surprised when his newest film Escape From New York was released.

Escape takes place in 1997, a time when the island of Manhattan has been turned into a penal colony. Escape from this maximum security prison is impossible; the tunnels have been sealed and the bridges mined and walled. The Statue of Liberty has become a guard tower from which infra-red goggled officers can blast escaping prisoners on sight. Radar and rocket-firing helicopters track the island constantly, forcing the three million criminals inside to prey on each other for survival.

Into the decaying remains of New York is sent Snake Plissken; his mission is to rescue the President of the United States after Air Force One is sabotaged and purposely crashed in the center of the island. The President is carrying a tape cassette crucial to the survival of world peace (there has already been at least one more World War). The catch is that the tape must be presented to the Russians and Chinese at a summit conference within 24 hours, or the threat of another World War is almost certain. Plissken, both a war hero and a famous master criminal (everyone who comes across him in New York greets him with: "Snake Plissken. I thought you were dead.") is offered amnesty if he can go in, rescue the President, and bring both him and the tape out safely, inside of the 24-hour time limit. To insure his continued co-operation, two microscopic explosives are implanted in Snake's main arteries which will kill him instantly if they are allowed to detonate.

The film is fast-paced and logically developed. Snake invades New York by glider, landing atop the World Trade Center. From then on, his next 22 hours are a hell of sewers, fights, and back-alley chases. Surrounded by rats, cannibals, and three million hardened criminals, he struggles to save the President and win his freedom.

Escape is Carpenter's best work to date, much more entertaining than The Fog. He has taken the old "one-man-might-succeed- where-an-army-couldn't" storyline and has decorated it with a fine cast and an extremely well thought out collection of sets and locations. (Most of the film was not shot in New York, but no one would ever be able to tell.) He has produced one of the best straight out action/adventure films of the summer.

Carpenter's vision of New York is a bleak, fire-lit one, the entire film taking place either at night, or inside poorly illuminated buildings. Very few sets were actually constructed for the film, although those which were are incredibly believable and elaborate. The central control center for the United States Police Force is more than the usual display of flashing lights and computers. Working video monitors offering three-dimensional readouts adorn the headquarters, and other recognizable bits of hard and software blend together to give the center a solid, functional look. By not setting the story too far in the future, Carpenter's presentation of things to come feels more believable simply through the high recognition values of known sights in the city. Coupled with the sets which make up the massive wall supposedly surrounding New York, Carpenter lulls one's disbelief in a rather outrageous plot situation.

Escape is not a special effects picture, however. Its main concern is with the people involved. Relying on a number of performers he has used before, Carpenter creates a realistic interplay among his characters. As usual, his bit players are a trifle too wooden, but they are on and off the screen quickly, doing little damage to the flow of the picture. For instance, in the opening sequences, there are a number of dully delivered lines from some of the secondary actors. Such moments are forgotten, however, when Kurt Russell and Lee Van Cleef exchange their pointed witticisms and ripostes. Carpenter has a talent for showcasing his stars which shines throughout Escape.

Another talent Carpenter has in abundance is his ability to inject humor into a dark situation without breaking the pace of his film. It worked well in Halloween; it works even better in Escape. The continuing "I thought you were dead" routines and the character of Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) show Carpenter's ease with, and yet tight control over, humorous elements. Both of these running bits are used carefully through the picture and offer a necessary change of pace, as any good bit of continuing humor should do in a serious drama.

Of course, like any picture of this kind, Escape From New York is not a classic. It is solid summer entertainment of unusually high caliber. By not pretending to be more than it is, but by also not settling for any less than it could be. Escape becomes an exciting, fast-moving drama, the likes of which we haven't seen in years. Using a new, imaginative setting for what seemed to be a tired plot line, Carpenter has presented us with one of the better films of the summer.


Cinefantastique (Vol 11/Issue 3/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 come.

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 rhythm.

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 camaraderie?

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 (
Vol 1/Issue 10/Sep/1981/UK) By Eric Braun


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 Cronenberg.

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 mercenary. 
     


Monthly Film Bulletin (Vol 48/Issue 572/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'.


New Musical Express (Sep 26/1981/UK) By Paul Rambali


The idea is something of an American joke; New York has become a prison, with no warders and no rules. The city has finally been over-run by criminal violence, and a wall has been erected along the Jersey and Long Island shorelines to contain it. The subway graffiti has spread like a jungle vine up the World Trade Towers and the Chock Full O'Nuts is now chock full o'rats.

In this prison, America's maximum security compound from which there is no such thing as a reprieve, crashes Airforce One with its cargo, the Presiden of the United States. It's brought down over New York as a political gesture by the People's Liberation Front of America, But the President (Donald Pleasence) survives, and it's up to the chief warden (Lee Van Cleef) to get him out. Warm up the helicopters. Forget the Chock-Ice.

With the whole movie business seemingly falling over itself to lay bouquets on Raiders of the Lost Ark ("The movie Hollywood was born to make"), John Carpenter's new action suspense fantasy will probably miss out on some of the running, despite being made with a fifth of the budget and five times the savvy. Escape From New York also boasts three of the screens most watchable old buzzards (Ernest Borgnine besides Van Cleef and Pleasence) and one of its most striking locations (New York City gone to hell). With a combination like that, even Steven Speilberg couldn't go wrong.

Within minutes, Lee Van Cleef is characteristically scrutinizing the barrel of a gun as he calculates the odds involving in handing it over to a newly-convicted criminal named Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) and sending him in to rescue the President in exchange for a pardon. Plissken is a disaffected ex-soldier, with allegiance to no-one but himself. Lee Van Cleef, doomed to re-live For a Few Dollars More but doing it at least with dignity, has to coolly pre-emt a possible double-cross. A minute bomb is injected into Plissken's bloodstream, set to go off in 24 hours, when the President is due to make a crucial broadcast. If he brings him back by then, the bomb will be neutralised, if not...

The minutes tick by in nerve-racking digital silence. The tension is wrought with deadly quartz accuracy. New York City Jail is crawling with punks, vampires and inhuman vermin (another American joke); the inmates have organised themselves into a vicious piratical gang with the Duke (Isaac Hayes!) as their leader, and they're holding the President hostage. Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), a New York cab driver (this is something of a New York joke) saves Plissken from a pack of vampires who live in the subways: "You shouldn't be hanging around 42nd Street at this time of night!" Kurt Russell doesn't stand a chance.

Escape From New York is a fast, cynical, expert thriller with its tongue never far from its cheek. John Carpenter made this combination work before in Halloween, the first and by far the best of the recent rash of films about terrorised females, which was obviously tongue-in-cheek (at least I hope it was) because only the promiscuous females in the film were terrorised. Escape From New York has the same kind of humour about it: enough for it not to be an insult to your intelligence, and just enough to stop you choking on the suspense.

Its one serious mistake is using someone a little too hunky and handsome for the part of Snake Plissken instead of giving it to Lee Van Cleef. Its one commercial error may well be the fact that it doesn't come to an entirely all-American conclusion.

But don't let old-fashioned values like that put you off. Escape From New York is worth every penny of the £2.50 it cost to see Raiders of the Lost Ark


Playboy
(Sep/1981/US) By Bruce Williamson


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.


The Face (Issue 17/Sep/1981/UK) By Giovanni Dadomo


John Carpenter's last picture, the disappointingly Disneyesque none-too-super delve into the supernatural The Fog, did little enhance the director's erstwhile "hot" reputation which had been built by on a tho of highly promising genre pictures. First off, the Sheckleyian comic delight of sf spoof Dark Star, then the magnum-powered urban Western Assault on Precinct 13, reaching apotheose with the brilliantly underdone (and all the more chilling for that) Halloween, undisputed king of recent spook pics.

Like its immediate predecessor, Escape From New York has a low budget air to it, from a leading man who's obviously come straight from 85th place in the line of Kris Kristofferson lookalikes to some painfully obvious use of models and painted backdrops.

That said, this modest adventure of the near future has its moments, even if its clanking plot doesn't always have the momentum the director's past might have led us to expect.

Carpenter's own script pushes the calendar forward a quarter of a century, a time when the island of Manhattan is one colossal prison where all of America's millions of bad guys are doomed to live out the rest of their naturals, unsupervised and kept in check by a police force with a license to kill any potential escapee instantly. Well cool.

Until the President of the USA, victims of a terrorist hijack (cue dummy plane, cue zealot pilot), becomes a prisoner in this thieves kitchen. Now what?

Police chief Lee Van Cleef has it sussed: take one newly-convicted ex-war hero (tantalising references to action in Siberia) and get him to fetch the prexy. How d'you know he'll do what he's told? You implant a couple of explosive devices in his throat with a timer device - he either completes his mission successfully or gets it all too literally in the neck.

Of course our hero's journey through the city of lost souls ain't no picnic - there's a close brush with the carnivorous band of psychos who live in the subways (echoes of the revenant sailors of The Fog) a gauntlet through a stone-throwing, jeering mob that carries shades of the scarier stories of whites driving through contemporary Harlem, and finally capture by the gang of ultra-baddies who run the city for a self-proclaimed Emperor Of New York (Isaac Hayes) who is prone to driving through the streets in a customized pimpmobile straight out of Liberace's worst nightmares.

It's at this point that the film enjoys its most memorable scene, when the wounded good guy has to battle the baddies' champion - a huge, bald, mountain of laid out of Yul Brynner and Giant Haystacks - in a crumbling hall packed to the rafters with ragged jeering criminals.

Everyone performs with a great deal of relish, yes, but, as everybody knows, no matter how much relish you put on it a burger still doesn't have much meat in it, even if it may taste marginally better. So it is with Escape From New York, distracting, but hardly essential. And what a waste of Lee Van Cleef.     


Film Review (Vol 31/Issue 10/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 police.

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 criminals!

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.


Photoplay (379/Vol 32/Issue 10/Oct/1981/UK) By M.S.


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 in-mates.

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 inmates.

Kurt Russell plays Snake with a mean look, gruff whisper, patched eye and a lot of muscle.

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.


Questar (Issue 13/Oct/1981/US)


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 serial action.

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 why.

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 dark).


Starburst (38/Vol 4/Issue 19/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 the meeting.

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 bleak Eighties.

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 model work.

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 pay off.

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 Campaigner (
Vol 14/Issue 7/Oct/1981/US) By Ira Leibowitz


Unfortunately, most of the millions who saw this movie when it was released in July and the millions more who can be expected to see it when it is released in December are children between the ages of ten and seventeen. It would be prudent for parents to mobilize now to outlaw Escape From New York before it returns to the theater this Christmas season to guarantee that neither their own nor other children are exposed to this sick and pathetic film.

The plot of Escape From New York is as mercilessly simplistic as the proliferating variety of "kung fu" films that also appeals so deeply to children. The movie depicts New York following some unnamed national crisis amid ongoing warfare with the Soviet Union. All is a smokey, grimey rubble-heap of a former civilization. Now the sealed-off Manhattan is populated by cannibals living in the abandoned subway tunnels and sewers, and ruled by an elite of the streets.

This terror hierarchy is overseen by "The Duke" (Isaac Hayes). On the guard towers, the Manhattan zone is ruled by a warden (Lee Van Cleef), who is also the chief of the national police force. Van Cleef, bald and sharp-nosed, wears a navy blue jumpsuit and gold earrings, and comes across as a very convincing caricature of none other than New York's Mayor Ed Koch.

A tour of this inferno is occasioned by the accidental crash landing inside Manhattan of America's British-accented President (played by British actor Donald Pleasence) on his way to an international disarmament conference in New Haven. To retrieve the President , the warden arranges for the release from life imprisonment of the hero, one "Snake" Plisskon (Kurt Russell). Plisskon, a "decorated war hero of the battle over Leningrad and Siberia," agrees to rescue the President within twenty-four hours, and to be put to death if he fails. Of course he succeeds, leaving a trail of imaginatively dispatched bodies across the screen.

Throughout the entire movie, not one human emotion is portrayed, not human fear, human love, or even tears. The audience sees scene after scene of violence and death mirrored by the actors with blank dread or an occasional wild zombie leer. This is the same blankness and detachment I've seen on television interviews with adolescent muggers who retell their murders, robberies, or rapes of senior citizens. Through this and other visual reminders, Carpenter does a very effective job of driving home the message that "this is just like New York's seamier side right now." In one scene, Snake walks onto an abandoned City Hall-area street in the daytime. It looks a bit more garbage-strewn and graffiti-plastered than the usual business day 1981, but in other respects normal - until you notice there are human heads impaled on the parking meters.

Later, Snake meets a punk rock woman in an abandoned Wall Street café, after being chased by a gang of cannibals who piled out of the sewers. While he is getting information on which gangs run with the turfs, the woman kisses Snake in a bid to escape with him - the first approximation of a human impulse in the film. But as she does, the cannibals suddenly breaks through the floor boards and drag her down below for their feast. Snake runs off, his machine gun blazing. As the woman's scream fade, Carpenter has made his point.

At this shocking moment, a wide-eyed nine-year-old boy sitting in my row asked his father: "Dad, what are they doing to the lady?"

The total vocabulary of Carpenter's screenplay does not exceed two hundred words, accented by highly audible grunts, groans, and thuds. The vocabulary and these sound effects revolve around the only relevant form of verbal action in Carpenter's gang-dominated world: who is to kill or main another person. Such verbs as "run," "duck," and "gimme" proliferate.

In fact, Snake's only distinction as a "successful hero" is his determination and fitness to kill before he gets killed. Thus, the language geometry of Escape From New York perfectly matches Carpenter's intention of creating a visual universe in which the ultimate endpoint of Jeremy Bentham's hedonistic calculus - the "law of the jungle" - reigns supreme.       


The Movie (Issue 99/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 for lively, spectacular compromises like Escape From New York.