Wednesday 12 July 2006

Wednesday 12 July 2006
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter WRITERS: John Carpenter & Nick Castle
CAST: Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken), Lee Van Cleef (Hauk), Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie), Donald Pleasance (The President), Isaac Hayes (The Duke), Harry Dean Stanton (Brains), Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie), more...

Back in the 70's and 80's, John Carpenter made a series of iconic cult classics that inspired a generation of filmmakers: Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Christine (1983), Big Trouble In Little China (1986), The Thing (1987) and They Live (1989). The 90's marked Carpenter's decline into misfires such as Vampires (1998), while the 00's haven't seen him recapture his glory years, with the appalling Ghosts Of Mars (2001).

Escape From New York arrived in theatres at a time when Carpenter's first three movies had all become successes, and is often considered the director's crown jewel. It's easy to see why, as it plays to all of Carpenter's strengths; a dystopian, violent future, with a memorable anti-hero who gleeful snubs authority...

The plot is wonderful high-concept pulp: in the future (er, 1997) New York City is a maximum security prison, so when Air Force One crash-lands in the city, the authorities have no choice but to send in a criminal to recover the onboard President (Donald Pleasance) so he can attend a crucial seminar.

Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, a swaggering one-eyed anti-hero with a major chip on his shoulder. Russell's career has been linked with Carpenter in a number of films (Elvis, 1979; The Thing; Big Trouble In Little China), but it was with Escape From New York that the pair really found cohesion.

Snake Plissken is perhaps the sole reason this movie remains as popular as it does, because such badass characters rarely age. The production itself is steeped in 80's low-budget atmosphere, with a permanent gloom and wonderfully simplistic synthesized music score (Carpenter's own work). The film has certainly dated, not helped by its 1997 "futurism" and presence of the World Trade Center, but there's something undeniably fun and oppressive that still works decades later.

For a $7 million movie, Carpenter does a brilliant job making audiences really believe in the situation. A few moments occur off-screen for budgetary reasons (the Air Force One crash), but the "ghost town" New York, populated by criminals known as the "Crazies", is quite brilliantly portrayed so thriftily (filmed entirely in St Louis, Illinois).

Beyond Russell, Escape's cast is quite a bizarre melting pot of talent. Legendary Western villain Lee Van Cleef plays prison commissioner Hauk with just as much growly brilliance as his Western characters, Ernest Borgnine is annoying as the Cabbie (a character who only serves to hook characters up), Harry Dean Stanton has a nice little role as Brains, Adrienne Barbeau is wasted as Maggie, Donald Pleasance makes a bumbling President (English accent?), while Isaac Hayes' performance as The Duke should have been more sinister than it actually is.

So while the eclectic casting doesn't really work in some key areas (a better villain for Snake would have been perfect), the film is essentially a vehicle for Kurt Russell to stalk around the city brandishing a gun and grumbling. It's not really a stretch, but Russell manages to make Snake one of modern cinemas more memorable anti-heroes. The cynical ending is a classic that stays true to the character, and should be applauded for providing such a perfectly downbeat ending.

Overall, Escape From New York is an entertaining movie with a superb first Act, that slowly stagnates in Act II, and eventually limps to a weak climax on a bridge. The problem is that the movie is all premise, and once the premise has been presented Carpenter doesn't really have anywhere very interesting to go, so the movie just trundles to its inevitable conclusion.

Carpenter certainly ensures the whole film is dripping with atmosphere and Russell carries the whole movie on his shoulders. For modern audiences, the scenes of a hijacked Air Force One being flown into the side of a building also earn added chills given the events of 9/11.

At time of writing, Carpenters movies are being remade with the director's permission (Assault On Precinct 13, The Fog, Halloween), but it's a cruel irony that Escape would gain most from a modern remake to do justice to the premise –- yet Carpenter's own 1997 sequel Escape From L.A was practically a remake and failed dismally...

Mind you, would you really remake Escape From New York without Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken?


This Special Edition DVD release isn't particularly special, but it does contain some interesting extra features and a superb commentary track. The animated menus are in the style of the movie's "line-graphics", with Carpenter's throbbing score -- a great appetiser that sets the mood superbly.

PICTURE: The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image has been given an overhaul for this DVD release. Generally the image is very good considering its age, but there's still grain in the odd scene and an understandable lack of crispness from a 1981 movie.

SOUND: Fans will be excited to see the movie has been given a DTS sound mix. The DD5.1 track is undoubtedly very good, although the rear speakers aren't used as much as you would perhaps expect. Still, there are some good aural moments to keep you in the movie's reality.


Commentary Tracks: There are two commentary tracks, one from director John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, the other from producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. Both commentaries were made in 1994 for the movie's laserdisc release, so everyone occasionally references supplemental material not on the DVD. Of the two tracks, Carpenter and Russell give a legendary discussion of the movie, chatting away like two best friends and packing in lots of information. Hill and Alves are far drier and spend too much time discussing only design facets to the movie.

Original Opening: We were originally meant to begin the film by seeing Snake rob a bank and attempt to escape in a subway train, and this 12-minute scene is available for you to take a look at. The quality isn't fantastic, and this scene was rightly cut from the completed movie, but it's still interesting.

Return To Escape From New York: This is an entertaining 22-minute documentary on the movie, with interviews with most of the cast/crew in later years (Russell, Carpenter, Castle, Hayes, Barbeau, Stanton, etc). There are lots of good anecdotes and this is a worthwhile extra.

Trailers: There's always something enjoyable about watching the awfully made trailers of the 80's. We live in an age where trailer-making itself is an art-form, so it's quite fun to see how fast this aspect of movie-making has transformed in just 20-odd years. "Snake Bites Trailer", "Theatrical Trailer" and "Promo Trailer" are all here for you to get your retro fix.