John Carpenter: The Collection: Escape From New York Review
It is 1997 and for the past nine years, the island of Manhattan has functioned only as a maximum security prison. Inside it are those that the government would rather forget about. There is no escape and no chance of parole. A fifty-foot-high wall surrounds it, it's bridges have either been mined or destroyed and armed guards patrol its perimeter. Anyone who strays too close to its border is either shot or attacked by one of the helicopters that frequently buzz the waters around it. Ruled by gangs and roamed by feral prisoners, the city is now out of bounds. There is no escape from New York.
While flying across the US on its way to an international peace meeting, Air Force One is hijacked by members of a revolutionary army. Taking the plane in the direction of New York, the pilot screams political slogans as they descend into the city. The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) attempts to get to freedom in an escape pod but this, and Air Force One, crash land in Manhattan. Police Force Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) attempts a rescue but is forced back out of the city, leaving only with one of the President's fingers wrapped in a tissue, proof that he's being held in Manhattan and that the rest of him will be shipped out in body bags unless Hauk secedes to their demands. With few options left, Hauk frees special-forces-soldier-turned-bank-robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) and cuts him a deal...a full pardon if he's able to bring the President back alive. Neither man trusts the other but it seems a good a deal as any.
Looking back through the early films of John Carpenter, there are several things that stand out. With the exception of The Thing and Dark Star, he appears to have a liking for strong female characters in his films, which often place him at a distance from those directors of horror who see women as victims-in-skirts. He can do atmosphere (Halloween and The Fog) as well as he can do gore (The Thing). His films also have a classic structure to them, as though being unafraid to reference the movies of his youth in modern horror. He's done it several times, not just in his remake of The Thing From Another World but in his placing Rio Bravo in South Central LA in Assault On Precinct 13. Finally, he has a way of making a low-budget movie look like nothing of the sort. His liking for Panavision and his use of the Panaglide camera giving him the ability to turn his less-than-a-million budgeted movies into what look to be major releases.
He does all these things once more in Escape From New York, a grimy race-against-time thriller that shows Carpenter getting style, action and a near-future setting (at least back then) far beyond what you would expect given his budget. Some of this is clearly good fortune but it also shows a director who not only has a clear grasp of what he wants to see in his film but who has the talent to achieve it. His setting, at least, is quite brilliant. However he managed it, his view of a blacked-out New York is as impressive an opening image as any, particularly when it comes complete with armed guards patrolling the security fence that surrounds the city. The two pitch-black towers of the World Trade Center say much more about the chaos in New York than does the written intro, as does the stretch of water, now empty of commercial shipping, between the rest of New York and the island of Manhattan. No matter what's to come, Carpenter sets his stall out in tremendous fashion.
His New York, filmed on the streets of St Louis, is believable but luck was also on his side. Instead of having to make to with bits and pieces of aircraft, Carpenter took possession of an entire fuselage and used the corner of Broadway and St Charles Street in St Louis, which had just been devastated by fire, in which to put it. His production crisscrosses St Louis in this fashion, finding locations and settings to give his film a unique look, part future and, in Cabbie watching an old-time Broadway show, well rooted in the past. Carpenter film from dusk to dawn, arranging for entire streets to have their electricity supply switched off. He even makes it to New York. Despite a bombing several months earlier, Liberty Island allowed Carpenter and his crew to place his production in the shadow of the Statue Of Liberty, something else that adds a note of authenticity to his film.
Having gotten his setting so right, Carpenter gets on with placing his modern-day western into the near future. Escape From New York, for all its shambling convicts and talk of civil liberties, is an old-fashioned movie in which the hero rides into a Godforsaken town to bust a gang of kidnappers and free their hostage. Snake Plissken is a reprise of the Man With No Name from the Sergio Leone westerns, even to Russell aping Eastwood's voice throughout. The appearance of Lee Van Cleef only adds to this homage to the old west. Other characters are given names to hurry the action along with no pause for storytelling. Cabbie is the old-timer who gives Snake a ride. In a Wayne and Hawks movie, his place would be taken by the cackling Walter Brennan but here it's Ernest Borgnine who joins the cast. Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) is the smarts in New York, safe in the New York Public Library, while the Duke (Isaac Hayes) runs the show. To get out alive, Snake must fight Slag (the suitably named Ox Baker). Just about the only character who escapes this shorthand is Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), a suitably robust female character who not only, in the best western traditions, stands by her man, but also steps forward to aid Snake in his escape.
That's not to say that the joins in Carpenter's western don't show any. Like a lot of his films, it helps if you don't think about Escape From New York too much and, instead, just enjoy the action. Inasmuch as it still looks great, some of its themes, such as the city being an urban jungle in which gangs prowl, are very much of its time. This and The Warriors would make for a good double-bill. But this has a sense of fun that will ensure we're still watching it a couple of decades on. And Snake Plissken won't ever date. Perhaps he'll fall out of fashion every once in a while - it would be hard to think of how an antihero like Plissken film might have fared in the years immediately after 9/11 - but thoughts of him, particularly when Carpenter feels the noose tighten around his liberties, will always return.
Like most of John Carpenter's films, Escape From New York arrives anamorphically presented in 2.35:1 and once you get past the wobble on the menu screen - I suspect it's deliberate - it actually looks alright. Not great but alright. What this DVD does well is to portray all of the lens flare and halos that are part of Carpenter's films of this era. Otherwise, though, it does look a little too dark, moreso than I would have expected although this viewer can't say for sure if that's how Escape From New York ought to look. Having only ever seen it when broadcast and off a rented VHS on a television on the far side of a school assembly hall, which isn't, I admit, the ideal setting for watching any film, I wasn't entirely sure how Escape From New York should appear. I expected dark but this looks dingy as well, as though the few moments of colour were drained. There's also a grittiness that masks the grain in the film. The Chock Full o' Nuts sequence, in particular, doesn't make as much of an impact on the viewer as it probably ought to given how dark it looks. Things do get slightly better in the Madison Square Garden fight but, again, it's neither as bright, sharp or as colourful as it ought to be.
There are two audio options, DD2.0 and DD5.1 but there's little to separate them. There's some sound from the rear speakers but not enough, with the impression being that the remix simply brought a little of the soundtrack into the rear channels to give the impression of space. It's not entirely effective, though, and after comparing both, this viewer decided to remain with the stereo track. Neither mix is bad, though, with the music, action and dialogue all sounding fine. However, like the rest of the films in this set, there are no subtitles.
Commentary: Carpenter and Kurt Russell are together for this track and, like that on The Thing, this is a funny and informative track with the two offering plenty of background detail from the production. And plenty of gossip too, which begins with Russell giggling barely two minutes in and doing so again throughout, particularly when Ernest Borgnine, a big smile on his face from watching the show in the theatre, appears on the screen. My own favourite moment comes not long after when Carpenter explains that while an all-American hero might stop the rape scene that is suggested by saying, "You can't treat a lady like that!", Plissken walks on by. Carpenter and Russell do talk about the characters and the locations but this is not a new track. It's been on previous DVD releases and dates back to the Image laserdisc release so it doesn't record what has happened in New York this decade. But it's still a very good one and, in my taking the opportunity to say this about a commentary, which doesn't happen very often, you will probably listen to his more than once.
Return To Escape From New York (23m00s): In watching seven John Carpenter films like this, one sees many of the same faces over and over again, much like an extended family. With this documentary, we're with Debra Hill, Kurt Russell, Dean Cundey and Carpenter, all of whom are on as fine form here as they were elsewhere on these DVDs, The Thing amongst them. This documentary takes the viewer from Carpenter driving around with the script in the boot of his car, through the production and on to a little analysis of the movie. Carpenter and Cundey explain the making of the movie in fairly straightforward terms, even to their sneaking into St Louis at night with three bits of a DC-8 while, late in the documentary, Isaac Hayes and Harry Dean Stanton appear.
Interview (31m15s): One of the advantages about high definition will be to look behind interviewees at their bookshelf and see what they read when they're at home. Behind Carpenter, I can just about make out Cosmos by Carl Sagan, a Ghost Of Mars T-shirt and something called The UFO Cover-Up, which do seem like the sort of thing that John Carpenter might read and wear. In this interview, he begins with Dark Star and goes on to talk about his own films, through Assault On Precinct 13 and The Thing with brief mentions given to Prince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness. He also talks about his influences, particularly Howard Hawks, with a mention too of John Ford.
Finally, there is an Alternate Opening, Snake's Crime (10m53s), which shows the bank robbery and its aftermath that led to Snake's imprisonment, as well as three Trailers (1m41s, 56s, 2m09s).