Today's topic: John Carpenter's Escape from New York. A brief history
of your humble reviewer's history with John Carpenter films. I watched Big
Trouble in Little China probably four times before I was 15. When I first
saw Christine, I decided right then and there that I would one day own
a car named Christine with a cassette tape cued up so that it would play "Bad
to the Bone" every time I started her up. Carpenter's In the Mouth of
Madness was the last film that actually truly scared me (the kind of movie
that changes your perception of walking home in the dark by yourself).
I disclose this biographical information in hopes of avoiding the inevitable
backlash from John Carpenter fans when I say: Escape from New York was
disappointing, and almost (gasp) boring. I thought it was worth watching; there
are some great elements (more on that later). But as a complete package, it
doesn't quite succeed.
The premise is classic. As the opening narration (done by Jamie Lee Curtis)
explains, crime rates in the United States have risen so high that the government
just decided to wall off all of Manhattan Island and turn it into a big open-air
hoosegow. There are no guards or cells inside the prison. They just drop the
convicts on the island and forget about them.
But there's one problem: Air Force One has just crashed into New York, and
now the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence, from Halloween
and Prince of Darkness), who looks suspiciously like Dr. Evil and whose
goofy egg-shaped escape pod looks quite a bit like Dr. Evil's escape pod, is
trapped somewhere in the prison. Enter Snake "Call me Snake" Plissken
(Kurt Russell, who is evidently John Carpenter's muse), the gravelly-voiced
anti-hero with a penchant for tight gray camo pants.
All great stuff, right? Ten minutes in, my hopes were high. The electronic
keyboard score (Carpenter does the music for pretty much all his movies) was
retro-creepy and made me nostalgic for Christine.
Twenty-five minutes in, my girlfriend turns to me and says, "This is
supposed to be an action movie?" My first thought was "This is sci-fi.
Not an action movie" (Turns out, though, that is mostly just an action
movie with some sci-fi trappings). I asked her, "When was the last time
you saw an action movie that was made before 1985?" And defenders of Escape
from New York will probably argue, correctly, that not all movies have to
have the intensity of DIE HARD. But when you look at similar movies, like Dawn
of the Dead (1978), Terminator (1984), Alien (1979) and
even Rabid (1977), you realize that Escape from New York has
not aged well. Yes, there are many action flicks from that era that are entirely
unwatchable. But plenty of directors (Spielberg, Lucas, Romero, Cronenberg)
made suspense movies just before and after 1981 that were very engaging and
For a little historical perspective, I went to the guy who loaned me the movie.
Let's call him Lars Fruth, 'cause, well, that's his name. He pointed out that
Escape from New York, together with 1979's Mad Max (which also
can drag on a little in parts) jump-started an entire cycle of Eastwoodesqe
heroes tramping through futuristic wastelands populated by mutants and crazies.
When I asked him, "What's so good about Escape from New York?",
he said, "It's just a stupid, fun, cheesy action movie that's made better
than most of the other stupid, cheesy action movies."
Okay, so what about Escape from New York does work? Plenty, when you
look at it in parts. There are darkly ironic touches, and the evidence of a
callously inhumane future (a voice tells new prisoners to follow the orange
line, then offers them a opportunity to be incinerated instead of going to the
island). Best of all is the idea of a prison run by the inmates that has turned
into a primitive society with its own entertainments, hierarchies, and factions.
And the inmates are great fun. There's the slightly senile Cabbie (Ernest
Borgnine), who becomes Snake's de facto sidekick. And Romero (there's also a
character in Escape from New York named Cronenberg), a crazy, hilarious
henchperson with spiky hair who is, I'm sure, the inspiration for the laughing
porcupine boys in Highlander 2. Escape from New York also gets plenty
of kitschy-cool points for its villain, the Duke of New York ("You're the
Duke of New York. You're A-Number-1"), played by Isaac Hayes. I mean, the
guy's got Tiffany chandelier lamps on the hood of his ride. He's one bad mother
[SHUT YOUR MOUTH!]
I'm just talkin' 'bout the Duke.
Less interesting is Harold "Don't call me Harold" Helmen, who prefers
the name Brain (What is it with these people's compulsive need to be referred
to by one-word monikers?). There is also Maggie, whose one distinguishing feature
seems to be huge tracts of land. I'm serious. Snake's got his eye-patch, Cabbie
has his cab, and Maggie's got her undulating bazongas.
HERE'S THE PARAGRAPH WHERE I DISCUSS THE ENDING, KIDDIES. COVER YOUR EYES.
But then, Carpenter kills off all of Snake's allies in a span of a minute.
For no other reason, it seems, than to skip the logistical and moral problems
that would arise when Snake arrives at the prison wall with three people to
whom he's alternately made death threats and promises of a freedom he can't
deliver. Then Snake gets to look self-righteous when the President of the United
States doesn't seem to care much about the people that died during his rescue.
There are also several moments that leave you wondering if Carpenter meant
them to be lame. For example, the (sort of) good guys have been discovered by
the gun-toting baddies. So someone shoots a pipe, and a pitiful plume of steam
emerges, ostensibly blocking off the bad guys. Then follows an excruciatingly
long shot of the good guys running (none too quickly) out of sight. Guess that
it didn't occur to the Duke of New York to go around the steam, or shoot through
The movie falls the shortest when it's trying its best to be actiony (Yes,
that's right, I used action as an adjective). The final few minutes (starting
when the rescued President tells the Duke of New York "You're A-Number-1")
make up a bit for the previous 20 minutes, which are, over all, abysmal.
After the movie was over, my girlfriend read aloud, in increasing derisive
tones, the backcover blurb for the DVD: "
a high-velocity sci-fi
that sets the screen ablaze with heart-stopping suspense
Bristling with riveting chases and hard-hitting fight sequences, Escape from
New York is your passport to nonstop excitement."
Who writes this feke? Don't call it a "high-velocity sci-fi action-thriller."
Call it a "stupid, fun, cheesy action movie."