Escape From New York Review

The film

It's pure prejudice but I don't trust a film buff who doesn't love John Carpenter. Sure, he's gone off the boil with Cigarette Burns being his only decent showing for almost 15 years, but the man made Halloween, The Thing, They Live, Starman, and he proved that entertainment could be made with intelligence. Like his hero, Howard Hawks, his films guaranteed their quality by boasting his name as part of the title, and his love of cinema shone through every frame of his work. But unlike the modern day trend of Tarantino, his films had substance of their own, keeping homage subtle and backgrounded as his work illustrated that this director was equal to the film-makers who had inspired him. It is one of the world's worst unfairnesses that this man has never got to make his western. Somebody, anybody, give him the dosh, leave him alone, and let him make his great horse opera.

Escape from New York is the kind of action movie that they have forgotten how to make. It is brimful of character, tension, action and proper motivation. Not only that, but the film curls its lip at heroism, it poo poos authority, and social comment and satire stick two fingers up at any one wanting obvious drama or dumb comedy. Actors do their jobs, the script does its and the viewer is happy that they are along for the ride. It all works despite small budgets, unusual casting, and a belly-full of attitude. If the film was a person, it would be smoking the largest cigar it could find with an open bottle of Jack Daniels at its side, it would tell the best stories, be the best companion, and make you feel great that you met it.

Of course, making a film that seems so damn good involves a lot of hard work, but above all it requires talent and great vision. When Robert Rodriguez tried to channel Carpenter's spirit for a new generation in Planet Terror, he forgot the humanity, the style, and, above all, the quality that the original film-maker possesses in abundance. Rodriguez had no Jane Russell substitute like Adrienne Barbeau, he had no former child star acting against type like Kurt Russell, and he didn't have possibly the most sleazy portrayal of a president on celluloid by Donald Pleasence. Most of all, Rodriguez's characters were one line jokes where Carpenter served up miscreants with their own thoughts and feelings.

Then you have the director himself, a man whose own pulsing simple score accompanies the film, driving it on in the action, flavouring the characters and never distracting from the visuals by its own cleverness. A man with a trusty crew and the great Dean Cundey ensuring that a five million dollar budget looks like megabucks. A director who lets the actors underplay, and try strange affectations like Isaac Hayes' twitch or the obscene hints that the blonde wig gives Pleasence about his humiliation. And who else would have cast Russell as a bad-ass, the ultimate anti-hero?

Who else would use St Louis for an apocalyptic New York and get away with it? Who else would name a character after George Romero, and cast his own wife with the surname "Wayne"? Who would edit it to within an inch of its life, remove all the back-story for Plissken and present a story about saving peace talks which actually suggests that the system is just bullshit. For all the films that have tried dystopia paradigms since, Escape from New York makes them seem empty as the corruption of the free world is left in contrast with the admirable character of the criminal loner Plissken. No one is saved for the good of mankind, and the best people die for political necessity - that kind of future is one we all know too well.

Carpenter, though, is about spirit more than politics. Plissken is his ultimate hero, the man who knows it's all worthless and grubby, and who stays alive because of his individual wits. The characters who surround him have spirit too, and values that are worth celebrating in spite of their criminal status - Brains' resourcefulness, Maggie's loyalty to him, and Cabbies' canniness and warmth. Seen in contrast to them, the police are black suited Machiavellis, and the president uses his subjects as bait for his traps. For all the terror of the rubble of New York, and the crooks running things like Romans in the coliseum, perhaps the normal world of conformity has worse monsters in store.

Obviously the future setting is a little hokey now, and some of the matte and model effects aren't cutting edge but Escape from New York is real film making from a man who deserves his status as an auteur outside his homeland and is sadly unappreciated within it. It's still a great thrill ride, it's still witty, and it's still got a bit of an edge which stops it from ever becoming predictable. When modern action flicks no longer invest in human depth, and splash their cash on empty eye candy, John Carpenter's films remind everyone that it doesn't have to be that way.

The Disc

Whilst not perfect, Optimum's Blu-ray of this film is a significant improvement on their release of The Fog. Detail is strong but the same issue with the softness of the periphery of the frame is noticeable, contrast is very good for this rather dark movie and colours are handled very well indeed. There are very minor compression artefacts and one instance of aliasing, but watching this along with the Momentum special edition I was confident that this represented an improvement on the visual quality of that former release.

Even better news is that the disc comes with two excellent surround tracks, one being a Master Audio option. The 5.1 DTS HD track is well balanced and uses the full range of speakers brilliantly for effects and score. Some elements of the mix seem a little dull at times, but given the age of the film this is hardly surprising. Ambience is created well in different environments such as the old theatre and in the car scenes, with nice use of the sub-woofer as the perspective switches from outside to inside the car. The mix couldn't be said to be three-dimensional as this is not a fussy treatment when angles of shots change for instance, but this is a very strong option for those wanting to get lost in the action with HD setups. The DD 5.1 mix is obviously recorded at a much lower bit-rate and loses some clarity for a more bassy feel, but again this is well created track for a movie that wasn't made with this kind of audio option in mind. There are no subtitles.

The main transfer takes up 19GB, and with the extra features this releases uses 90% of an all region BD25 single layer disc. The menu is not available as a pop up but it is rather well designed with the score accompanying an animation of New York in ruins. The film comes with Russell and Carpenter doing a commentary where both appreciate the film and the good time that they had making it. Carpenter is very good at explaining the choices he makes around approaching the scenes and the logistical problems of shooting. He is keen that his cast and crew are recognised for their work, and he remarks on James Cameron's matte paintings and Pleasence's bravado. Both men decry the lack of freedom when working with major studios and they seem to have a blast again as they discuss old glories.

Russell and Carpenter join many of the cast and crew in the short documentary remembering making the film. The director explains that the film came about after he was asked to make a version of the Philadelphia Experiment and he offered this old script of his instead. Russell explains that this is a film about individuality and that the film made his career, breaking perceptions about him being a former child actor.

Three trailers are included, along with the original opening of the film showing Snake's arrest after an unsuccessful heist. Best of all though is a new interview with the director talking freely and intelligently about his career. He waxes lyrical about Howard Hawks, describes his own soundtracks as being "cheap and fast" and discusses his films up to The Thing and They Live. He is very telling on modern horror when he rejects the term "torture porn" and points out that recent films are about misadventuring Americans getting their comeuppance, and that this seems to be an inspiration coming from the real world around us. Carpenter is highly eloquent, very insightful, humble and surprisingly political, and this interview made me nip straight out to buy a book on the man.


A solid hi-def treatment with a nice haul of extras and an excellent DTS master audio track make this a sound purchase.

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 21:34:17

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