Press > Reviews
> Escape From New York
Carpenter film has some times and
some misses (The Shreveport-Bossier Times/Mar
By Lane Crockett
John Carpenter is one of those
filmmakers who does it all. In his latest offering,
Escape From New York,
he co-wrote the script, composed the music and directed, and came up with a
not-unsuccessful futuristic thriller.
The director, who guided
to good box offices, this time has turned his attention to a "suspenser" set in
the 1990s when the entire island of Manhattan has become a central prison for
the nation's lawbreakers. America, one assumes, has evolved into a police state.
The impetus of the picture comes when the president's plane crashes within
Manhattan and the head of the state is held hostage. One man, Snake Plissken (Kurt
Russell), a young war hero and now
dangerous criminal, is the only man who can go in and bring the president out.
To ensure that Plissken, who is offered complete freedom if he does so, will
accomplish the feat, tiny bombs are planted in his system which will destruct in
This is straightforward derring-do with a smattering of fancy to give it a
twist. Carpenter likes this kind of nervy project, and when he settles down to
action sequences the picture has a good deal to recommend it. Somehow, though,
it never quite gets one on the edge of the seat.
The director's conception of a walled-in Manhattan seems to be large piles of
garbage in the streets and a good many deserted stores. Otherwise he doesn't
give us much in the way of what the island looks like in scope. He partly gets
around that by shooting the picture throughout an evening, so that one picks out
Carpenter also is not much interested in filling in story gaps. Where, for
instance, do all those criminals get food? We are already told the state ignores
the place (only patrolling it around the perimeters). The mysterious Snake seems
to be known by every Tom, Dick and Harry - and all of them think he is dead.
Why? What happened to the rest of the country? Granted, Carpenter is only
interested in this telescoped escape attempt, but it comes off as a small part
of a larger drama.
Russell, speaking in a muted growl, wearing an eyepatch and straining for a
super-macho attitude, pushes too hard until he finally settles down. Apparently
this is Russell's try at breaking out of the characters he created for so many
Walt Disney films. Ernest Borgnine,
a former oscar winner for Marty, gives another of his silly
evocations of blue-collar worker, this time, oddly, a cab driver in the prison.
The rest - Lee Van Cleef
as a steely-eyed police official,
as Manhattan's acknowledged kingpin,
Harry Dean Stanton
as his inventive toady and Adrienne Barbeau as Stanton's girl - walk through
Chicago Sun Times (Jul 10/1981/US)
By Roger Ebert
Escape From New York is far from what it could have been,
but it does have sufficient energy and the idea is different. Carpenter is a bit
more than a competent director and he comes up with some nice camera work,
instilling a sense of eeriness. But, unlike his previous efforts, this one falls
a little short in shaking up the adrenalin. The ending is clever and not really
John Carpenter's Escape from New York is a cross between three of the
most reliable ingredients in pulp fantasy: (1) the President is Missing, (2) New
York is a Jungle, and (3) the Anti-Hero as Time Bomb. Carpenter has gone after
an original angle on each of the ingredients, with disappointing results.
The president, for example, would be much more convincing if he were not played
as a sniveling wimp by Donald Pleasence (of all people). The movie's New York of
1997 would have been more interesting if it were seen as a genuinely different
prison society, rather than as a recycled version of The Warriors. And
the anti-hero needs more human qualities and quirks; he seems lifted from old
These basic problems prevent the movie from becoming more than it is, a
competent job of craftmanship. Escape from New York has the misfortune of
being a merely good thriller in a summer when the standard has already been set
by Raiders of the Lost Ark. And yet it's fun to see old standby
science-fiction ingredients rehashed for our cynical times.
The vision of a post-civilization New York has been used in several movies, most
memorably in The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), in which Harry
Belafonte walked down city streets that were all the more frightening because
they were simply deserted and quiet.
At the beginning of Escape from New York, we learn that the city was
turned into a federal maximum security prison in 1987, and that several years
later the island is ruled by prowling gangs who have their own sources of power,
food and clout. When we see New York, however, it is essentially just a
garbage-strewn junkyard roamed by wild-eyed crazies.
How do people survive there? If the movie had provided specific details, it
could have been fascinating. Instead, we get tantalizing hints of how things
work; for example, a gang leader (Isaac Hayes) has a small oil well pumping
inside his headquarters.
The president has been missing, endangered, kidnapped, blackmailed or otherwise
inconvenienced in countless other movies and novels. This time, after terrorists
hijack Air Force One and crash it into Manhattan Island, the president escapes
inside an ingenious armored pod that is never explained. He is then held
hostage, along with a cassette tape that contains the means of preventing World
War III. Carpenter's decision to cast Donald Pleasence in the role reminds us
that Pleasence added great credibility and psychic weight to Halloween,
in the role of the psychiatrist. But he never makes a convincing president.
The movie's plot revolves around the decision of the police commissioner (Lee
Van Cleef) to send a convicted criminal into New York to bring the president
back alive. The criminal is a Special Forces veteran (he fought, we learn, at
Leningrad and Siberia). If he gets the president out within 24 hours, he gets a
pardon. If he doesn't, tiny time bombs rupture his major arteries.
The criminal is played by Kurt Russell, a talented veteran of several Disney
movies (and of the title role in Carpenter's TV movie, Elvis). Russell is
so determined to shake his Disney image that he goes whole hog, with an eye
patch, a three-day beard and growl so hoarse he seems to be moaning most of the
time. It's an interesting idea for a performance, maybe, but nothing is done to
give the character human qualities, and so we're allowed to remain detached
about his plight.
A bunch of familiar faces turn up in supporting roles. Ernest Borgnine is the
last of the wise-guy New York cabbies, still looking for fares in the
jungle. Isaac Hayes is the gang leader, Harry Dean Stanton is his personal
advisor, and Adrienne Barbeau is his "squeeze." Making this list, I keep being
reminded of the word I started out with: Ingredients. Everything is here, and it
all works fairly well, but it never quite comes together into an involving story
or an overpowering adventure.
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
and the very good, small budgeted
Assault on Precinct 13.
Escape From New York, which opens today at Loew's State One
and other theaters, is by far Mr. Carpenter's most ambitious, most riveting film
Set in the not-too-distant future (1997), the film works so effectively as a
warped vision of ordinary urban blight that it seems to be some kind of
hallucinatory editorial. It may even remind you a little bit of
Alphaville, if Alphaville had been directed not
by Jean-Luc Goddard but by Frederico Fellini in an uncharacteristically antic
mood. Its economy of style, though, would do credit to Don Siegel.
It is the dark idea of Mr. Carpenter and Nick Castle, with whom he collaborated
on the screenplay, that this nation's crime rate quadruples by the late 1980's,
at which time the United States Government officially takes over what's left of
Manhattan and turns it into a Federal prison. Manhattan becomes a sort of super
Roach Motel: the inmates check in but they don't check out. The place is
supervised from the outside, from a central command post on Liberty Island, by
guards and radar stations on the facing shores and by constant helicopter
patrols. Once a month there is a food drop into Central Park.
At the beginning of the film, Air Force One, carrying the President of the
United States (Donald
Pleasence) to a summit meeting in Boston,
is hijacked and crash-lands near the "old" World Trade Center, where the
President is retrieved and held for ransom (amnesty for all prisoners) by
Manhattan's leading citizen. This is a 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
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.
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
Van Cleef) tells him if he rescues the
President he will be set free. Russell accepts, but just to make sure he follows
through, Van Cleef has him injected with a drug that will make his arteries pop
unless he meets the deadline and thus will be able to have the drug neutralized
behind him, John Carpenter certainly knows how to work up an audience, but how
deeply you become involved in
Escape From New York will
depend on whether you will be able to root for the relentlessly surly Russell
(who starred in Carpenter's TV movie
Neither he nor anyone else in the film generates a trace of sympathy, but the
youthful audience with whom Carpenter has connected so successfully may like
Russell. How he turned from war hero to robber is left unexplained by Carpenter
and his co-writer Nick Castle, who apparently expect people to identify Russell
with the disenchanted veterans of Vietnam.
Escape From New York is a totally disillusioned
film that presents the government as an absolute monolith dedicated to the
unhesitating and hypocritical exploitation of the individual. Not that the
criminal denizens of Manhattan are any better. There are monthly drops of food
supplies in Central Park, but other than that, the prisoners are completely on
their own in devising fuel supplies and satisfying all their other needs. They
have been reduced to animals engaged in an unrelenting struggle for survival in
the ravaged metropolis.
What Carpenter has projected with his usual effectiveness is a vision of hell on
earth. His view is utterly cynical, but his cynicism is one of exploitation
rather than protest. Along with large doses of brutality with strong visceral
appeal there are sexist and racist overtones. In this, as in so many other
talented filmmakers' work, it's hard not to find Carpenter irresponsible. (He,
no doubt, could argue that he's simply telling it as it is.)
Carpenter's Manhattan is seen almost entirely at night, which makes for an
ominous mood and a good disguise of any limitations of budget. His derelict
prisoners gather in a moldy Art Deco movie palace for seedy live entertainment.
Gladiators with spiked maces fight in a ring set up in a vast old Romanesque
train station lobby. (It's Union Station in St. Louis, where much of the film
The supreme ruler of New York is the menacing Duke (Isaac
Hayes) who tools around in a Cadillac
with crystal chandeliers decorating the hood. His top adviser is The Brain (Harry
Dean Stanton) who lives with his tough
moll (Adrienne Barbeau) in a public library with an oil well pumping up in its
main reading room. There's a crazed old cabbie (Ernest
Borgnine) who somehow has managed to
drive the same cab for 30 years.
Escape From New York is crude, brutal but undeniably vital.
It is the kind of film widely admired in Hollywood because Carpenter and his
colleagues have managed to get every cent of its relatively modest $7 million
budget right up there on the screen. A new special lens and other new gadgetry
have allowed cameraman Dean Cundey to shoot most effectively in darkness, and
production designer Joe Alves has been most imaginative in evoking a Manhattan
in ruins. Carpenter's sense of style is strong enough to sustain some obvious
miniature work, and his eerie, insistent synthesizer score, which he composed
with Alan Howarth, contributes strongly to the film's brooding aura of danger.
Escape From New York is a film of sleekly
impressive surfaces. Its suspense is not really all that inherent but rather
derives from Carpenter's reputation for the unpredictable.
Escape From New York (rated R for strong violence and language) can be
compelling, but it's perfectly understandable that many will not be able to go
along with the corrosive, pessimistic view of humanity that Carpenter projects
with such force.
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
Russell). He has 24 hours to accomplish
his mission before the President misses a summit conference and the microscopic
explosives implanted in Snake's arteries are automatically detonated.
On its face - and a stubbly, scarred, scowling visage it is -
Escape From New York
functions smoothly as another of the new action-adventure films. John Carpenter,
who hit it big with a pair of graceful, scary horror movies (Halloween,
here returns to the tones and textures of his earlier garrison melodrama
Assault on Precinct 13:
an apocolyptic shootout between the good-bad guys and the forces of maleficence.
With his runty muscularity and a voice whispered through sandpaper, Kurt Russell
is a sawed-off, charmless Clint Eastwood. Rather than involving the viewer with
the characters, Carpenter seems content to put them on elegant display. Take it
or leave it, love 'em or hate 'em, this is the face of America's future.
Maybe. But it makes more sense to see
Escape From New York
as a ferocious parody of popular notions about Manhattan today - the mugger's
playground and pervert's paradise made notorious in comedy monologues and movies
like Death Wish and Taxi Driver. In
Escape, parking meters are piked with gaping corpse heads,
bridges are mined to kill, the New York Public Library houses an evil genius
named Brain, and Penn Station is littered with train carcasses out of a
brobdingnagian's toy chest. John Carpenter is offering this summer's moviegoers
a rare opportunity: to escape from the air-conditioned torpor of ordinary
entertainment into the hothouse humidity of their own paranoia. It's a trip
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
What follows in John Carpenter's dark and dangerous
Escape From New York
will probably satisfy most action-movie addicts. It's a good workmanlike,
unpretentious entertainment. But given his terrific setup, does Carpenter really
make the most of it? The fun in store isn't just a matter of how Snake will
rescue the Prez, but how Carpenter will play with the Big Apple. What kind of
crazy society have the outcasts created? What will the new New York look like?
There's a fine, funny and menacing scene when Snake first arrives and stumbles
into a decrepit, candlelit old theater whose wardrobe has been appropriated by
some old bums for a low-camp Broadway song-and-dance routine. It's a promising
intro, but Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle don't give their imaginations
free reign. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK gets more conventional as
it goes along, settling for chases and narrow escapes when it could have had
wild social satire as well.
Carpenter has a deeply ingrained B-movie sensibility - which is both his
strength and limitation. He does clean work, but settles for too little. He uses
Russell well, however. His voice muted to a soft rasp, Russell is a compelling
action hero - tough, cynical and sexy. After his title performance in
Carpenter's TV movie
wonderfully fast talking car dealer in Used Cars, this
former Disney child actor has emerged as one of the most versatile leading men
on the scene. And keep your eyes open for Frank Doubleday as Carpenter's most
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
Carpenter hasn't displayed much interest in making statements in his previous
wanting simply to entertain, and that's what
Escape From New York
seems to be about as well. But the director (who co-authored the screenplay with
Nick Castle) does show a sardonic side in his treatment of American life 16
years in the future.
If he's pandering to anyone, it's the young moviegoers who will identify with
his anti-establishment hero who disdains all authority, from the whimpering
president of the United States who's being held hostage in New York to the black
leader of the prison society pack. But with his eye patch and a name like Snake
Plissken, this is an anti-hero out of an adult comic book, a kind of surly
right-wing hippie with a screw-you attitude.
Snake Plissken is a war hero (World War III) who's gone bad. Sentenced to spend
the rest of his life imprisoned on Manhattan, he's offered a deal: a full pardon
if he can rescue the president within 24 hours. The president's hijacked jet has
crashed onto the island, and the chief executive is a hostage. He must reach a
crucial summit meeting within 24 hours or the world-wide hostilities may resume.
Snake enters this alien world, making allies and enemies as he searches for his
Carpenter manages to maintain a high level of suspense as the situations seesaw
in and out of Snakes favor. There's also a surprising degree of character
shading for what's basically a chase flick, and a grim sense of humor further
enhances the action.
once a child actor in Disney films, growls his way through the movie as Snake.
It's not a complex performance, but its intensity does have an effect.
Offbeat casting has
Lee Van Cleef,
seen to surprisingly good advantage, as the almost decent prison warden and
as the ominous self-appointed dictator who rules Manhattan.
Harry Dean Stanton
credibly handles the role of a brainy but weaselly prisoner, and even
holds his own as a kindly but anachronistic cab driver. Adrienne Barbeau isn't
so good as Stanton's moll though, and Donald Pleasence
doesn't quite cut it as the milquetoast president. Times may be tough, but this
guy couldn't beat Harold Stassen.
The look and feel of the film are sharp and dark. Its hip cynicism may rub some
the wrong way, but the bleak future Carpenter paints does have its roots in
rising crime rates and world tensions. Escape From New York
is a cartoon with a sneaky bite.
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
'Escape from New York' brings credibility to a story that could come true
(Film Review/Vol 31/Issue
Futuristic thrills from John Carpenter (Photoplay/379/Vol 32/Issue 10/Oct/1981/UK)
By M.S. (Page:
13/Oct/1981/US) (Page: 17)
Starburst (38/Vol 4/Issue 19/Oct/1981/UK) By Phil Edwards
The Movie (Issue 99/Nov/1981/UK)
By Philip Strick (Pages: 1976-1977)
Escape From New York Rotten Tomatoes
Escape From New York IMDb
Escape From New York IMDb (External Reviews)
Escape From L.A.
No Escape (Sci-Fi Universe/Vol 3/Issue 1/Sep/1996/US) By Robert Meyer Burnett
Total Film (Issue 4/May/1997/UK) By Dave Golder (Page: 101)
From L.A. Rotten Tomatoes
Escape From L.A. IMDb
Escape From L.A. IMDb (External Reviews)
Escape From L.A. rogerebert.com