Spoilers thought you were dead, Snake.
I have revisited this review to make it the last of my John Carpenter film series. Of all his movies, this one has become a personal favorite. It’s one of those retro-futuristic genre films in which 1997 seems like the distant future yet the idea of a police state is not far fetched. If you want to know how to picture a dystopian future, this one is a primer. If it seems completely outdated at first glance, consider the idea is not to see the actual future but to envision its potential. Making an over-the-top action movie based on that potential is just genius.
I think John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) was directed by John Carpenter who wrote it with Nick Castle. It’s the future, or a future to be accurate, and New York City has been turned into a giant prison. Airforce One is hijacked and intentionally crashed into the city-prison, exposing the President to the worst of the criminal element. In this future 1997, which now we can call anachronistic and part of alternative history, this feels very much like it could have happen at some point. Hell, it could happen even more now.
Enter “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell) a dangerous inmate that is sent in to retrieve the President or die trying. Snake is the epitome of the 80’s badass anti-hero. He’s even got the eye patch and leather jacket to prove it. He even has the raspy Clint Eastwood voice. This might sound like I’m mocking him, I am not. He’s the real deal here and Russell plays him sharp. He is not here to save anybody else but himself. There’s also a common trend with everyone who’s heard of Snake and thought he was dead.
The other thing that hits you in this movie is that essentially nobody is a good guy. Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) recognizes the President (Donald Pleasence) is as good as dead. New York City is basically run by The Duke (Isaac Hayes) who has no trouble torturing the President. Not that we ever feel sorry for this alternate 1997’s sorry Commander-In-Chief. He’s a complete asshole all throughout the movie. I mean who would elect someone like this sorry piece of… Nevermind, I forgot which year it was on this timeline for a moment.
Fortunately, Snake does have some cards to play. He does know a lot of people and a lot of people know him (although they keep thinking he was dead). He soon has “befriended” (sort off) Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), probably the last innocent person in New York. He also knows The Duke’s main thinking guy, Brain (Harry Dean-Stanton). Brain is basically IT. He’s got maps and diagrams and knows where things are and how things work. He also seems to be able to make fuel for the man.
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.
The police commissioner, Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) is another brilliant performance. You believe him when he says he’s not a fool and you know that the capsules that Snake has on his neck are not a joke. Unlike other villains, Hauk never proves himself on the screen. He never squeezes the truth of another prisoner or has anybody killed. He’s calm, cool and collected throughout the whole ordeal even with the President’s life and Snake’s on the line. He rarely even raises his voice. But we do not doubt for a second that he means business.
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. It does take just a little of that soundtrack beat coming back to life to bring us back to the goal at hand. Although Snake does have incredible bouts of good luck including getting caught and not getting killed, he’s up against quite a number of enemies. At the top of that list is, of course, the main man. A number 1. The Duke of New York.
The Duke is the bad guy, yet he’s aiming for quite a generous goal: amnesty for every criminal in the city. That makes me think The Duke is probably even more naive that Cabbie, or he had a different plan all along. Is it possible that The Duke might actually be the sole disinterested person with a vision to help more than just himself? Or was he just making sure that the moment that the pardon was “granted” and those doors were opened there would be cannon fodder to cover his hide from the barrage of bullets while he escaped? Who knows.
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 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.