Escape From New York SE Review
Although John Carpenter’s place in cinema history is assured – and would be if he had made nothing except Halloween - his star has dimmed considerably since the early 1980s. That is partly due to a considerable amount of work which is, at best, mediocre and there’s no-one but Carpenter that we can blame for films like Ghosts of Mars, Escape From LA and Village of the Damned. But it’s also down to what we might call the ‘masterpiece syndrome’. Essentially, this boils down to a simple question; where do you go when you’ve made a film so significant that it has a defining influence on a whole genre ? Carpenter has done it twice; once with Halloween and once, less spectacularly but no less importantly with The Thing. It’s no surprise then that people are disappointed when he comes up with films that, while being perfectly respectable, aren’t as good as the ones with which he made his name. This process of not being quite good enough began with The Fog in 1979 and reached its first peak with the release of Escape From New York in 1981.
In this, his fifth film as director, Carpenter combines the SF elements of his first movie Dark Star with the classic Hollywood action set-up of Assault On Precinct 13 - a film which was a broad remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, one of Carpenter’s personal favourites. Escape takes place in 1997, then sixteen years in the future, and a time when crime will have spread so rapidly in America that the authorities have resorted to a desperate measure; turning Manhattan Island into a maximum security walled prison. Criminals are dumped there with no guards, no rules and no hope of parole and are expected to survive as best they can. Inevitably, a quasi-social order has been created which is comprehensible only in context and virtually unknown to outsiders. However, the authorities who hoped to dump criminals and forget about them are faced with a crisis when the President’s plane, on its way to an urgent peace conference, is hijacked and the President (Pleasance) is forced to flee the plane, landing somewhere in the middle of New York. An initial exploration by the police leads to the discovery that the President has been kidnapped by the Duke (Hayes), a crime kingpin, and will only be released in exchange for a free pardon for all criminals residing in New York. Police Chief Bob Hauk(Chief) decides that only one man is qualified to go into the prison and find the President; Snake Plissken (Russell), a decorated solider turned criminal whose medals for valour and knowledge of the prison make him the ideal candidate. He is offered a Presidential pardon if he gets the big man out alive, but to give him a little more incentive he is injected with two capsules which will kill him in under 24 hours unless they are deactivated. With no choice but to co-operate, Plissken flies a glider into the prison, landing on top of the World Trade Centre, and begins his journey into the complex and potentially lethal sub-culture of the penitentiary.
The first twenty minutes of Escape From New York are riveting; fast paced, funny, exciting and an object lesson in economical storytelling. Character and setting are established with the kind of precision which made Carpenter’s Hollywood heroes – Hawks, Ford, Peckinpah – such great filmmakers. There’s also time set aside for some nice character touches and plenty of sharp, acid dialogue. Here, and throughout the film, Carpenter uses iconic casting as a narrative shortcut with actors such as Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine playing variations on their familiar personas; slightly out-of-it chancer, tough, hard but fair man of action and rough-hewn sidekick respectively. This is exactly what Ford and Hawks did and it was something which Sergio Leone used in Once Upon A Time In The West, a film which so obsessed Carpenter that he had the music played at his wedding. Indeed, watching this film ( and The Thing) one feels that if Carpenter had been able to build up a stock company to use in film after film that he would have done. He managed this to some extent in the late 1970s and 1980s with actors like Donald Pleasance, his then wife Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers and, later, Peter Jason. Sadly, he never quite got that repertory feel going in the way that Ford did, casting the same actors in similar roles over the course of several decades and using their natural ageing as part of the characters and the films. After They Live in 1988, the impression is that Carpenter is willing to cast anyone who needs the work and potentially iconic actors such as Charlton Heston and Peter Fonda turn up in individual films to sparse effect.
This opening section is taut and compelling. It’s odd, therefore, that the film begins to lose some of its grip when we’re introduced to the (anti)hero. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Kurt Russell’s performance – it’s a little one-dimensional but then so is the character and I don’t think there is any other way to play it. But with his landing in New York, after a tense glider flight which ends by landing on the World Trade Centre (thus neatly dating the film even further), the plot becomes increasingly episodic and breaks down into a series of set-pieces, vaguely held together by the need for Plissken to get back within 24 hours so he isn’t internally executed. It’s certainly exciting and sometimes very wittily achieved – the end-of-its-tether Broadway show is a total delight – but when you compare it to the sheer narrative drive of Assault or Halloween then it’s a serious disappointment.
Where the film is a genuine triumph is in its overcoming a low budget. The film cost about five million dollars but it looks just as good as many films which cost ten times that amount. The choice of location – St Louis, Missouri – was inspired given that the city had recently been gutted by fire, and clever production design by Joe Alves makes it a dead ringer for a dystopian New York. But credit should also go to John Carpenter and his DP Dean Cundey. The use of low-light lenses is amazingly atmospheric, allowing for a dark, grimy look that has been endlessly influential on the many low budget ‘no future’ films which followed in the wake of the success of this movie. Carpenter also knows, like few other living filmmakers, the value of the Panavision frame and his use of tracking shots keeps you involved in the thrust of the shot rather than looking around to find the usual low-budget weaknesses. Although the narrative wanders about too much, shot-by-shot it’s an artfully considered and single minded piece of work.
It’s been frequently said that Escape From New York is basically a Western and that’s unsurprising given Carpenter’s affection for the genre. At the time (1980), he was still planning to make a Western - El Diablo which later surfaced as a TV movie – and it seems that this desire has been sublimated into other genres. Look at Big Trouble In Little China for further evidence. The nearest he has come to fulfilling his genre ambition was with the 1998 film Vampires, an unfairly maligned horror romp in which James Woods gives one of his most entertaining performances. Set in the South, packed with showdowns, dust and elaborate panning shots, it’s Carpenter’s Western and makes a lot more sense if you think of it like that rather than as a horror film. Escape owes a lot to Leone’s Spaghetti trilogy, quite apart from the casting of Van Cleef, and Russell has often said that he deliberately based his performance on Clint Eastwood’ Man With No Name. But it’s also obviously inspired by other films in the genre. The presence of Borgnine suggests Peckinpah and Snake has certain qualities of a Peckinpah anti-hero, particularly Doc in The Getaway, and the character of The Duke, a self-styled military dictator complete with tunic, seems to me to be a nod to Mapache in The Wild Bunch. Rio Bravo comes to mind as well in the way that Snake, ostensibly a loner, attracts a bizarre group of compatriots who are willing to fight with him despite his lack of sympathetic qualities.
However, the Western influence goes further. One key way in which Carpenter did attempt to emulate Ford (and, to some extent, Hitchcock and Hawks) was in his repeated casting of Kurt Russell in a string of films from his TV biopic Elvis in 1979 to Escape From LA in 1996. However, this didn’t quite work as planned for a number of reasons. Firstly, Russell – while being a reasonably good actor and a very good light comedian when given the opportunity – has neither the range nor the screen presence of John Wayne or Cary Grant and secondly, you never feel that he’s being used for anything except the character in the particular film. When Ford used John Wayne in The Searchers, it was in the knowledge that his presence would remind audiences of the earlier roles he played for Ford and that Ethan Edwards could conceivably be the dark side of the Ringo Kid and Nathan Brittles. In other words, he stretched Wayne’s screen persona to its limits and used it to inform his narrative. Carpenter doesn’t do this with Russell. The roles are so different that there’s no obvious thematic development going on – Snake Plissken is very different from the Russell characters in The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China. There are a hundred actors who could have played any of these parts and Russell’s presence isn’t indicative of anything except that he had a good relationship with Carpenter. I’m well aware that there is a school of thought which thinks that Russell IS Snake Plissken but as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing particularly interesting or unusual in this performance and Russell has been far, far better elsewhere – notably in his beautifully understated work in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood.
But it would be perverse to suggest that Escape From New York isn’t a hugely enjoyable film. Carpenter’s use of the wide frame, the funny and intelligent screenplay and the enjoyable performances from the likes of Isaac Hayes and Harry Dean Stanton come together to make a film which is hard not to like. The meandering narrative is annoying but probably more so on a second viewing. A first look is likely to rivet any viewer to their seat and that’s all you can ask from this kind of fun action movie. As a Science Fiction film it’s been very influential and the dystopia that it creates is more convincing than the usual low-budget desert location to which we are usually treated. Compared to Carpenter’s earlier triumphs, the film is certainly disappointing but compared to some of his more recent work – the dire Ghosts of Mars in particular – it looks pretty damn good.
This is the second MGM Region 1 release for a film which has become a major cult favourite. There has also been a UK release from BMG but I’d rather draw a veil over that disaster. The first MGM discs was barebones but this second release is a Special Edition with a good transfer and some nice extra features.
The film is presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1. It looks about as good as it ever has done with gorgeous colours, sharp contrast and plenty of fine detail. The dark look of the film would have been ruined by artifacting problems but this is not an issue. There is certainly a small amount of edge enhancement in places but not so as to detract from the film.
The soundtrack has been remastered from the original stereo track into Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s a pretty good track with a warm, involving feel to it but it’s more Dolby Surround than 5.1 Very little action from the .1 LFE and the surround speakers aren’t used all that often. However, dialogue is nice and clear and the pounding (if a touch monotonous) music score comes across very well indeed. A French mono track is also included.
There are a number of special features although not as many as you might expect from this kind of collector’s edition. The best of the lot is contained on the first disc and is a simply wonderful commentary track from Kurt Russell and John Carpenter. Recorded for the laserdisc release in 1994, this is lots of fun to listen to and possibly the track which has made people so fond of commentaries with groups of people responding rather than analytical examples of the form. I’d heard so much about this track that I expected it to fall a bit flat but I was delighted by how entertaining it remains. The two men obviously enjoy each others company and they have lots of amusing things to say about the making of the film. The second track isn’t as interesting, featuring Debra Hill, Joe Alves and a lot of dead air, but it’s still interesting to listen to if you’re a fan of the movie.
The second disc is disappointing in comparison. Things start well with a documentary called “Return To Escape From New York” which is a competent, if short, look at the making of the film with plenty of interview footage. I was disappointed not to see Ernest Borgnine among the interviewees but the other cast members have all worn fairly well. 25 minutes is really too brief for this kind of thing though and other MGM special editions have been better served.
The best feature on disc 2 is the inclusion of the deleted first reel which shows how Snake became imprisoned in the first place. This is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 and Dolby Stereo and is in mediocre condition. I thought it was fascinating and there are some fantastic Panaglide tracking shots in there but it’s easy to see why Carpenter cut it. It would make a good beginning for a film but not this one. An optional commentary track from Russell and Carpenter is included over this sequence.
We also get a reasonably generous stills gallery, three trailers for the film, all of them worth a look, and a feature called “The Making of the Snake Plissken Chronicles Comicbook”. This is basically promotional fluff for the comic book which held no interest for me whatsoever. It’s a series of stills along with some photos and text. Most baffling is the last special feature, a ‘trailer montage’ called Snake Bites which consists of scenes from the film backed by a new music score. Utterly bizarre and completely pointless.
There are English, French and Spanish subtitles, animated menus and 32 chapter stops.
If you’re a fan of Escape From New York then you will be very pleased with this release. The commentary from Russell and Carpenter is worth the price of the disc by itself and the other features are generally worthwhile. The uncut “missing reel#1” is particularly fascinating. The film is enjoyable if episodic and anyone who likes SF-action movies will like this one. The disc has been nicely put together and is well worth a look.
Last updated: 26/06/2018 21:34:06