RETRO REVIEW – ‘Escape from New York’

John Carpenter's dystopian action flick is still relevant even in the 21st century.

Review by J.T. Johnson

ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: July 10, 1981
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter
WRITERS: John Carpenter, Nick Castle
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Dean Cundey
MUSIC: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth

I first saw “Escape from New York” back in the early 2000s. I was a massive fan of “Metal Gear Solid” and I heard that the game’s creator, Hideo Kojima, was inspired by “Escape” when he developed the character of Solid Snake. The character that Solid Snake was based off of was Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken.

The movie was written by director John Carpenter years before it was actually made. The story was a response to the cynicism that surrounded the presidency during the Watergate scandal. No studio wanted to make it at the time because they thought it was too violent and weird.

After the success of “Halloween”, though, Carpenter was able to get the film funded. For Snake, Carpenter wanted to give the role to actor Kurt Russell. The actor was quick to accept the role seeing that it would help him escape his soft image that had been established in the various Disney films that he had previously starred in.

The movie’s plot is simple enough. In 1997, crime has risen so badly that the government has walled off Manhattan Island and made it a statewide prison. The rules are simple, once you go in, you don’t get out. As long as you don’t try to escape, you can do whatever you want on the inside.

Unfortunately, Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists and it crashes in Manhattan, where the president is promptly kidnapped. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) comes up with a plan. He will use the soon-to-be inmate Snake Plissken to go in and save the president. Should Snake succeed, he will get a pardon but if he fails, two explosives in his neck will be set off.

The movie is one of the ultimate examples of a dystopian sci-fi film. The movie establishes that the world has set up a dangerous police state, a theme that is just as relevant now as it was back then. Snake is forced to save the president and the president himself is a self-serving douchebag, again not unlike today’s climate with the Trump administration.

Beyond the film’s themes, though, the gritty action and a classically cool lead character help make this movie work as well. Russell does his greatest Clint Eastwood impersonation and it works for the role rather than seeming like a shameless knock off. In just a few short pieces of dialogue, we also know who this character is and we root for him all the way.

The movie also has an impressive cast of unique supporting characters, including Harry Dean Stanton’s Brain, Adrienne Barbeau’s Maggie, and veteran actor Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie. Of course, with every good protagonist, you need an interesting antagonist as well. In this movie, that role is filled by the Duke of New York, played impressively by Isaac Hayes.

The Duke wants to use the president to get him and his men off the island and he’ll do anything to make that happen. Hayes successfully makes you believe that this is a calculating and ruthless villain. It’s not hard to believe that the Duke is in charge for a reason.

Carpenter once again proved with this film that it is possible to make a cult classic on a shoestring budget. The movie is relentlessly gritty, yet it still offers a ray of hope that there are people out there fighting for the oppressed, even if they themselves have become a little more jaded by circumstance. While the dates in the film may be long behind us, like “1984” before it, the message in “Escape from New York” is still worth telling even today.

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