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Carpenter film has some times and some misses (The Shreveport-Bossier Times/Mar 18/1981/US)
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
Halloween and The Fog 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 24 hours.

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 shadowy images.

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, Isaac Hayes as Manhattan's acknowledged kingpin, Harry Dean Stanton as his inventive toady and Adrienne Barbeau as Stanton's girl - walk through stick roles.


The 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 unexpected.

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 spaghetti Westerns.

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.



A Very Tall Tale (
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 Halloween, the not-so-hot THE FOG 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 to date.

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 spledidly 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 cheif 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
Elvis, is 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.


'New York': Cynicism with Style (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 skyskraper. 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 Force (Lee 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 by X-ray.

Whew!

With
Halloween
and The Fog 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 Elvis)

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.

But then
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 was shot.)

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.

In short,
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.


Bad Apples (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 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.


A Helluva Town (Newsweek Magazine/Jul 27/1981/US)


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.

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
Elvis, his 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 delicios villain - a wild-haired, androgynous punk who looks like a ghoulish cross between Mick Jagger and Medusa.



'Escape' trashy fun without real meaning (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 city?

Carpenter hasn't displayed much interest in making statements in his previous films, including
Halloween
and The Fog, 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 ticket out.

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.

Kurt Russell
, 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 Isaac Hayes as the ominous self-appointed dictator who rules Manhattan. Harry Dean Stanton credibly handles the role of a brainy but weaselly prisoner, and even Ernest Borgnine 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.



Sooner or later Carpenter will make the film that'll put him in the majors. This isn't it. (Cinefantastique/Vol 11/Issue 3/Sep/1981/US) By Stephen Rebello (Page: 47)



Continental Film and Video Review (347/Vol 26/Issue 11/Sep/1981/UK) (Page: 8)



Monthly Film Bulletin (Vol 48/Issue 572/Sep/1981/UK) By Richard Combs (Pages: 174-175)



'Escape from New York' brings credibility to a story that could come true (Film Review/Vol 31/Issue 10/Oct/1981/UK) (Pages: 22-23)



Futuristic thrills from John Carpenter (Photoplay/379/Vol 32/Issue 10/Oct/1981/UK) By M.S. (Page: 57)



Questar (Issue 13/Oct/1981/US) (Page: 17)


 
Starburst (38/Vol 4/Issue 19/Oct/1981/UK) By Phil Edwards (Pages: 16-19)



The Movie (Issue 99/Nov/1981/UK) By Philip Strick (Pages: 1976-1977)

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Escape From L.A.




No Escape (Sci-Fi Universe/Vol 3/Issue 1/Sep/1996/US) By Robert Meyer Burnett (Pages: 61-62)



Total Film (Issue 4/May/1997/UK) By Dave Golder (Page: 101)

More:
Escape From L.A. Rotten Tomatoes
          Escape From L.A. IMDb (User Reviews)
          Escape From L.A. IMDb (External Reviews)
          Escape From L.A. rogerebert.com