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I have revisited this review as I’m now binging John Carpenter films. I’m going through a bit of personal film nostalgia train, and this viewing is just par for the course. Now, this movie belongs in the vault, of course. It’s one of those retro-futuristic genre films in which 1997 seems like the distant future yet the idea of a police state does not feel so far fetched. If you want to know how to picture a dystopian future, here’s a primer. Some will consider it’s outdated, but the idea is not to see the future, but to envision it.
I think John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, is one of those rare-ish films from the late 70’s and early 80’s that somehow managed to produced a perfect storm. It’s awkwardly yet perfectly casted, with a star-making performance by Kurt Russell and as a model for a lot of genre films. It follows quite an outlandish premise: It’s the future (or a future if you prefer) and New York City has been turned into a giant prison. Airforce One is hijacked and intentionally crashes into the city, exposing the President to the worst of the criminal element. There’s an obvious anti-establishment sentiment as we’re looking at the US Police Force basically acting like stormtroopers in riot helmets and machine guns.
I can’t but help but be reminded that Escape could’ve gone the same way than Star Wars. There was a time when I was younger in which I’d thought it would’ve been cool to remake it with spaceship-looking hovercrafts and laser guns. But the more I see franchises diluting what made them cool in the hands of mainstream, the more I’m glad nothing like that happened to Escape. Yeah, I know it had a sequel, Escape from L.A. (1996), but it was just too late in the game. Fortunately, it garnished a cult following well established as a standalone film, which I still consider it to be.
Escape from New York is an 80’s movie and I can’t help but watch it with a nostalgic lens. The idea of using a criminal to rescue the President, the over-the-top look of Snake Plissken as a badass, Isaac Hayes playing the Duke of New York, Ernest Borgnine playing the naive Cabbie and Harry Dean Stanton as Brain are just characters that are preposterous and campy enough that this movie could’ve failed a hundred times, only had one chance to become a cult hit and somehow made it. It does the one thing that every movie dreams about doing: it’s entertaining for its intended audience. The killer soundtrack doesn’t hurt. It’s a bit eerie to see the twin towers standing. Also, regardless of what the poster would have you believe, the statue of liberty is safe and sound in the movie.
Why does it work? Well, it’s John Carpenter in its prime. The whole premise of 22 hours to rescue the President or you will die is meant to keep us in suspense. The tension is refreshed every time that Snake looks at his timepiece. And yet, he seems unhurried until the very last moments. The Duke is the bad guy, yet he’s aiming for quite a generous goal: amnesty for every criminal in the city. Is that really something a villain would do? And yes, I know it has a bit of a lull around the middle where you’re waiting on the action to pick up again. Fortunately, it does and we’re there as the countdown clock marches closer to the final minute.
Extremely recommended for genre film enthusiasts, 80’s nostalgia fans, cult film followers and perhaps one or two movie critics that can do a better job at explaining why this movie works. It’s not perfect. It’s very rough around the edges. Snake gets caught, double-crossed, hurt and disarmed but how exactly he doesn’t get killed while unconscious is a miracle. How he manages to get the upper hand again, is circumstantial. And yet, other action heroes that succeed in the face of similar odds by either supernatural instincts, feats of strength or infinite stamina are not necessarily more credible. All things considered, it may be a product of its time and a movie to be rewatched only by those who still remember the future as seen from the past.
That will do for now.