Escape from New York (Special Edition) Review
With the US cinema roll-out of The Fog's 2005 remake happening more or less as I type this, there are doubtless many people out there wondering 'Whatever happened to John Carpenter, anyway?' Curiously, Carpenter is one of those directors who is more 'fondly remembered' than 'actively appreciated', and casting a glance back at his last few films, it's not that hard to discern why. Critical (and box-office) bombs like Ghosts of Mars, Vampires, and Escape From L.A. have not precisely done much to reassure the loyal among his fanbase, and even setting Peabody's Wayback Machine for Carpenter's 'golden period' (centred roughly on 1980, coincidentally when The Fog first roiled across the big screen) only seems to cement his status as one of the all-time great B-movie directors.
But what classic B-movies they were! Despite their flaws, films like Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live! all possessed that quirky Carpenter charm that made them instant classics... even if you may nowadays find yourself smirking at his penchant for hand-tooled synthesiser music as the main themes.
Speaking of memorable synth music, arguably the most iconic Carpenter film of this period is 1981's Escape From New York (replete with gripping poster art depicting the head of the Statue of Liberty lying amongst the ruins of downtown NYC, even though Lady Liberty's actually intact in the film itself). And if the theme tune and promo art weren't funky enough, there's always the cast to consider. This film marked Carptenter's first 'star-studded' production, featuring such recognisable faces as spaghetti-western regular Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine (Ice Station Zebra, The Poseidon Adventure), Donald Pleasence (The Great Escape, You Only Live Twice), and the redoubtable Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Repo Man, Pretty in Pink). He even roped Halloween star Jamie Lee Curtis into doing the initial scene-setting narration when it became clear from test screenings that the audience had no clue what the hell was going on.
Interestingly, the 'big name' actor that most people would associate with Escape From New York was more or less a Hollywood non-entity at the time. Whilst hardly inexperienced, Kurt Russell's acting career to that point had consisted primarily of 'feel-good' Disney-style family fare (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don't, The Strongest Man in the World) and he certainly must have seemed to many an unlikely choice for the gritty lead role in a dystopian action film. However, after playing the title role in Carpenter's 1979 made-for-TV production of Elvis, the latter was so taken with Russell that he immediately started thinking of him in terms of a potential Snake Plissken.
Ah… Snake Plissken, the role that made Kurt Russell's career. In many ways your run-of-the-mill antihero, between Russell's understated performance (modelled directly after Clint Eastwood's 'Dirty Harry', as the actor reveals in the commentary) and some brilliant one-off lines from Carpenter's script, Plissken ('Call me Snake') has long since achieved cult status. But I'm getting ahead of myself again. I don't suppose there's really anyone out there reading this who doesn't know the premise, but just in case…
In 1988 the crime rate in the US rises by 400%. Apparently things get progressively out of hand and America quickly degenerates into a neo-fascist police state where pretty much any minor deviation from the rules subjects the citizenry to hefty civil fines or draconian criminal sentences. By 1997 the government has made the inexplicable decision of turning the vibrant economic hub (and, for that matter, prime real estate) of Manhattan into the world's largest penitentiary. A massive wall engirdles the entire island, the waters are patrolled, the bridges are mined, and anyone sentenced to the facility is given the option of being terminated at the disembarkation complex on Liberty Island or being dumped on the other side of the wall and left to fend for themselves in NYC for the rest of their (probably short) lives.
That tracks well enough as a backdrop, but where's the hook? Glad you asked. You see, it's not just on the domestic front that things are a bit dicey for America… in fact, as the film opens the President is on a flight to a major international summit, where he'll present some key speech that may be the last chance the country has of averting World War III. (Yes, yes, I know… but just remember this was filmed in the 80s and re-engage suspension of disbelief mode, please.) Then, through a major balls-up of both the staff security screening process and poor flight route planning, members of the National Liberation Front hijack Air Force One and pilot it on a crash course for the derelict buildings of Manhattan. The President avoids death by jettisoning from the craft in an emergency 'Presidential escape pod' (stop snickering!) and it's all hands on deck to try to retrieve him from the prison-city in time for the summit.
By a remarkable stroke of good fortune, among the latest arrivals for processing at Liberty Island is ex-Special Forces lieutenant Snake Plissken. Sure, he may have been heavily decorated during his military service, but apparently it didn't pay very well because more recently he was caught bank robbing… and as bank robbery carries with it a life sentence in 1997, he's packed off to join the merry denizens of Manhattan. Not one to pass up a chance like this, the police commissioner in charge (Bob Hauk, played by Lee Van Cleef) intercepts him before he's dumped over the wall and makes him a deal: rescue the President in 23 hours and receive a full pardon… or fail to do so, and the time-release capsules they just implanted in his neck will blow his head clean off.
So there you have it. Aside from a very minor twist involving the film's McGuffin (and one completely in keeping with the character of Plissken), this film proceeds much as you'd expect. Our (anti)hero encounters the usual complications along the way, but also unexpected allies (of a sort) which range from the streetwise yet eerily-cheerful Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) to The Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), a lab-minder who keeps the petrol flowing in the otherwise dark island. Of course, things get simultaneously more camp and more fun when Snake runs across the Duke of New York (played by Isaac Hayes, who is nowadays better known as Chef from South Park) and his cronies, who have their own agenda concerning the President.
I probably sound more dismissive of Escape From New York here than I actually intend to. The truth is, the film has a tremendous wacky appeal despite all of its brainlessness. Snake Plissken's a great character, and Kurt Russell doesn't botch his chance. The supporting cast flesh out their roles with panache… not necessarily through handing us stand-out performances, but just because each actor seemed to approach his character from a slightly-unexpected angle. (Although in some cases, this didn't come off very well, as with Isaac Hayes' Duke.) The dialogue is snappy and rife with memorable soundbites, and the subtle satire of the future of law enforcement is quite welcome. Whilst the 'big action sequences' in this film are spread a bit thin on the ground, they don't fail to entertain whenever you come across one. Overall, this is a B-movie worthy of its cult classic status… just in the name of all things holy, don't subject yourself to the sequel.
This R2 Special Edition is the latest in a now quite-long line of Escape From New York DVD releases, so one would expect that by this point the studios are starting to reach the end of their bag of tricks when it comes to new selling points to slap on the back of the disc case. Nonetheless, undaunted, they assure us that this latest version includes a 'remastered High-Definition transfer'. While that's certainly true (this DVD featuring, as far as I can tell, the same updated video source as was used for the R1 SE that came out in 2003), I don't really have a basis for comparison as this is my first time seeing the film on DVD. Obviously it looks vastly better than it did on VHS, but that's hardly saying much, is it?
Anyway, I'll give you the dirt all the same. What we have here is an anamorphic PAL encode in that sprawling 2.35:1 aspect ratio Carpenter fell in love with. It's a fairly decent transfer but has a number of minor issues of which you should be aware. First off (and the commentary goes into somewhat greater detail on this point), this is a film shot predominantly at night, in a city where electricity is not generally available and therefore light sources are few and far between. To even make it possible to capture the kind of scenes he envisioned, Carpenter's team ended up using cameras that were fairly cutting-edge at the time and extremely high-speed film. Which means lots of visible grain in the print. If you can get around this - and some residual softness - then it's pretty clear sailing, honestly. I didn't notice any significant damage (scratches, dust nicks, etc.) in the video, which is pretty amazing for a film that's almost 25 years old. The only other beef would be with occasional issues of camera focus in certain scenes, but these are unquestionably present in the original print so not the fault of the DVD.
In the realms of audio, the biggest news for audiophiles out there is that this is the very first release of Escape From New York featuring full-on DTS 5.1 sound. Unfortunately my viewing setup doesn't incorporate a DTS decoder, so I'll have to restrict myself to commenting on the alternate soundtrack offering, the Dolby Digital 5.1. One thing I noticed immediately is that the DD 5.1 is extremely active… and at points almost hyperactive. While there's good left/right separation and stereo directionality in the front soundstage (and this is also where most of the film's music hangs out), the rear speakers always seem to be doing something as well, be it loonies rampaging in the streets of Manhattan or helicopters blitzing their way across the skies in the background. There's also quite a lot of bass action for the subwoofer to chew on. These are the good points, however; the bad ones would have to include a slight murkiness to the soundtrack - particularly the bits passed to the rear soundstage - and the treble range (including some of the voices) seems to suffer a bit in comparison to the bass at times. But overall, a good effort, achieving a very immersive effect.
The menu design, while aspiring to be futuristic, ends up veering slightly into retro-cheese and has the more serious issue of being difficult to navigate when the 'red security line' that the menu selection text is hidden in is pulsing at its brightest. Not that there are all that many menu options to wade through, mind ('Play', 'Scene Selection', 'Audio', 'Special Features', and 'Subtitles').
Moving on to the wide world of DVD extras, we experience once again the 'distributor magic' of a 1-disc R2 Special Edition which somehow manages to squeeze in practically all the content of the 2-disc R1 SE that preceded it. (Not that I'm cynical about DVD marketing ploys or anything like that.) For what it's worth, there are very few differences between MGM's 2003 R1 SE and this new 2005 R2 SE by Momentum.
For example, they both offer the same 2 feature-length commentary tracks. The first is a 1995 recording featuring John Carpenter and Kurt Russell having a good time looking back at the production of Escape From New York whilst they were no doubt in pre-production of its sequel. It's bubbly and cheerful, with John leading us through a few entertaining anecdotes and Kurt chuckling hoarsely throughout… even when John's going over some tangential technical detail that's not necessarily all that amusing. The second is a 2003 recording featuring producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves, which is frankly a snore-fest. Not only does it take them a few minutes to remember that they're supposed to be doing a commentary, but even when they do start talking, it's all about set design and finding suitable locations to shoot the bulk of the footage… material that was covered much less drearily by Carpenter and Russell in their commentary.
Similarly, both Special Editions offer us the Return to Escape From New York featurette, which - as with the 1995 commentary - is lifted straight from the old New Line Home Video laserdisc release. Clocking in at about 23 minutes in length, this extra unfortunately tends to cover much of the same ground as the two commentary tracks, and this redundancy began to grate on my nerves by the time I'd finished watching everything on this DVD. For instance, how often do we need to hear that almost none of the film was shot in New York, but instead in a decrepit area of St. Louis? Or that in the early tracking shot that pans down from the Statue of Liberty and across a building (and, might I add, briefly into complete darkness), the production crew sneakily shifted the filming to a location thousands of miles away? I mean, honestly, aren't these more or less standard film techniques?
Far more interesting to me than the featurette is the deleted bank robbery scene (around 11 minutes long, counting the overlap with the standard opening credits and voiceover). While naturally the A/V on this sequence is much rougher than the remastered film, it does at least help to flesh out the backstory of Snake Plissken a bit. However, it apparently confused the American test audiences and Carpenter removed it from the start of the film, having Plissken arrive dramatically 'out of thin air' just as the crisis with the President begins to break. Oddly, I've heard rumours that an additional commentary was recorded by Carpenter/Russell at some point specifically to accompany this 'missing scene'. If so, it's certainly not present on this disc.
Rounding out the set of 'shared' special features are a handful of trailers, all bad. Here we have a promo trailer and the original theatrical trailer (mondo cheesy voiceover), as well as a strange thing labelled the 'Snake bites trailer', which just seems to be random clips from the film set to music, etc.
So what's missing in comparison to the R1 SE? Well, apparently the region 1 DVD offers a photo gallery, a sparse text-only feature about the making of a comic book called the 'Snake Plissken Chronicles', and a mini-sized sampler of the comic in the DVD case itself. On the other hand, in exchange the R2 SE adds that ever-popular DTS 5.1 soundtrack option, so your call.
A recognised cult classic, Escape From New York finally receives a decent R2 release thanks to Momentum Pictures. While the Hi-Def video and DD 5.1 audio may only be slight improvements over their previous DVD incarnations, the DTS 5.1 soundtrack will be greeted with open arms by fans possessing the right home cinema equipment. The collection of extras on this version are fairly extensive, missing out only a handful of minor perks that came with the R1 SE. Recommended.