"I thought you were dead." --- Everybody's response (more or less) when they meet up with the legendary Snake Plissken as he traverses the terrain of the prison facility once known as Manhattan in John Carpenter's sci-fi/action opus Escape from New York.
Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is the definitive tough guy. A former Special Forces soldier who has turned into an outlaw in the ensuing years since he left the military, Snake finds himself imprisoned and sentenced for life to Manhattan (which was turned into a maximum security prison in 1988, funny how I don't recall that ever happening) for federal bank robbery. When Air Force One goes down on the prison island, leaving the president (Donald Pleasence) stranded, Snake is called upon to head up a one-man rescue mission to bring him back within 24 hours in exchange for a full pardon on his sentence. His bloodstream loaded with micro-explosives designed to go off in exactly 23 hours unless he can bring the president back, Plissken heads onto the vicious prison island in order to complete his mission so he may return and exact revenge on the people who forced him into it in the first place.
Best known as the film that solidified Kurt Russell's break away from the usual Disney films he was known for at the time (a stigma also lessened by his portrayal of Elvis in the TV movie directed by Carpenter almost two years earlier, a film which forged the relationship that Carpenter and Russell have shared for four more films over the last twenty years), Escape from New York also solidified Carpenter's career. Halloween was his huge breakout success, but this film proved that he could continue that success and was a force to be reckoned with when it came to horror and sci-fi films.
This film was not only groundbreaking for turning Russell into an action star, but also because it featured some new technologies that had yet to be used in many films. The effects in the film, though not anywhere close to CGI, were impressive for the time and what is even more amazing about them is that they were incredibly inexpensive and were partially created by Terminator director James Cameron (who was working for Roger Corman's effects department at the time, the company who created the effects for this film). The other major noteworthy element was the first time use of a camera lens that could film in low light (called the Ultra Speed Panatar), which allowed for incredibly dark scenes to be shot without having the entire scene bathed in stage lights. This innovation allowed for a even grittier look than normal and contributed to the overall tone of the film.
Although this film is decent as a landmark in both the careers of Carpenter and Russell (and gives us a new Clint Eastwood/Spaghetti Western-like character to admire), I find this film a little on the slow side. There are some great action scenes and a wealth of great actors who were cast perfectly, but I just found it to be a little too leisurely paced. I know I may take some heat for it, I actually find its fifteen-year later sequel (well...remake/sequel, actually) Escape from LA to be a little more fun in its approach, not to mention the fact that Bruce Campbell shows up in it as a demented plastic surgeon.
Note: I find it funny that Escape from New York takes place in 1997, while its actual sequel was released just a year prior to that in 1996. It's interesting that the sequel is placed exactly fifteen years apart from the original (making it set in the year 2013), but why don't I recall Manhattan being turned into a prison island way back in good old 1988? Apparently, Carpenter and Russell find it funny as well, because this issue was brought up several times in interviews during the filming and release of Escape from LA.
As usual, the film boasts a great score by director John Carpenter, who never had any formal training as a musician but is somehow able to create the some of the most memorable score ever committed to film. The main theme (which was revamped into something a little more exciting for the sequel) remains, to this day, one of the themes most likely to get stuck in my head for no reason at all. There's a lot to be said for a song I can't shake from my memory that was written by a guy with no musical background.
Escape from New York has been released on DVD through MGM Home Entertainment. The film is presented in the standard format, or in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with anamorphic enhancement (no real challenge in figuring out which is the better version of the two to watch). The transfer is nearly perfect, with the intensely dark scenes showing no artifacting at all.
Unfortunately, the DVD lacks the excellent commentary track featuring Carpenter and Russell that was licensed to the New Line Home Video laserdisc release, as well as a brief documentary that featured clips from the original excised opening (the clips themselves being a bone of contention for film buffs back when laserdiscs were the film viewing format of choice). In fact, the only feature carried over from that laserdisc to this DVD is the original theatrical trailer. I figure the reason why none of this other stuff was included may have a lot to do with rights issues, but it makes me glad that still I own a laserdisc player. As it stands, though, this DVD will make a good addition to your shelves right alongside that bare-bones Paramount DVD of Escape from LA.
Film/DVD Review Courtesy of Pockets of Sanity