In a world
Where the prisons are cities walled in,
Realms of wrongdoing and centers of sin,
Where breakers of laws have a death wish when caught,
Thrown in with the worst of a dangerous lot…
In this world
When the President’s stranded inside,
Held captive by villains who know how to hide,
One man and his eyepatch must enter this strife
To rescue this hostage…and save his own life!
MPAA rating: R
The ‘80s was a decade full of cheesy action movies that were forgivably, entertainingly so, but there are different categories of action cheese. Take The Running Man, for instance. Its dystopian world of reality show violence run amok could have been kept on a serious level, but Arnold Schwarzenegger reveled in terrible one-liners that kept the dark plot as tongue-in-cheek as possible. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, on the other hand, bears a different kind of shabby grit that may have preposterous elements but at least takes itself seriously.
Surely the best thing about Escape from New York is its iconic main character. Kurt Russell as the eye-patched prisoner Snake Plissken is the embodiment of the tough-guy anti-hero, a self-interested mercenary with an attitude. When he’s injected with an explosive on a timer and tasked by gruff police chief Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) with rescuing the captured President (Donald Pleasence), Plissken must venture into the walled-in prison that is New York City to recover his target before time runs out. The distant dystopia of 1997 (I must have blinked and missed it) seems to include more than a little source material for The Purge series, full of shadowy alleyways and sewers full of crazies, at least as far as the film depicts, not showing anything of the world outside the lawless prison-city. It’s not all gloom, though; the film does have its own sense of humor, but it’s a bit more low-key than cheesy one-liners, like how everyone comments that they thought Snake was dead or when Snake takes shelter from roaming loonies in Chock Full O’Nuts.
Of course, as an action movie, the dingy urban setting is only the backdrop for Plissken’s exploits, with a car chase through enemy territory being the standout thrill. The personalities he encounters along the way may be underdeveloped, but their actors make memorable characters out of them, from Ernest Borgnine’s amicable Cabbie to Harry Dean Stanton’s calculating Brain to Isaac Hayes’s menacing Duke. The budget and limited special effects are felt in certain scenes, such as only showing the President’s plane crash through some radar animation, but the film and its hero thrive on aggressive moxie that makes the most of their resources.
A world-building action movie with more atmosphere than pyrotechnics, Escape from New York is among John Carpenter’s best cult classics. It may not be one of my favorite action movies, but I see why it’s popular with my VC and many others. While I suspect it is inevitable, something in me hopes that it never gets a remake.
Best line: (Bob Hauk, who sends Snake in) “You going to kill me, Snake?” (Snake) “Not now, I’m too tired. [pause] Maybe later.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S.G. Liput
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