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Escape from New York
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   John Carpenter
Genre:   Action / Science Fiction
Released:   1981
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   4/10 (What Is This?)

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 well paced.

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.


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 it.

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 action-thriller … 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."

- First film/DVD editor Jason Myers says "Call me Jason", then he says "The name's Myers." Does that show an arc of character development, or does he just like to be contrary? We can't tell.

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    DVD Stuff

    Move along, nothing to see here. Except a trailer telling you how heart-pounding the movie is. At least they give you the option of watching it wide-screen or pan-and-scan. A little too often, DVDs have stopped giving you that option. DVD Rating: 2/10.

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    Escape From Terror (1960)
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    Escape from Zahrain (1962)


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