ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: If You Lived Here You’d Be Dead by Now


S.D. Plissken. Lieutenant. Special Forces unit “Black Light”. Two Purple Hearts, Leningrad and Siberia. Youngest man to ever be decorated by the President. You can call him Snake, and he’s in for one long night.

Released in 1981, Escape from New York is a wicked post-apocalyptic thriller stripped of unnecessary plot and loaded with memorable characters and balls-out action scenes done as only John Carpenter can.

The year is 1997, or as people in the eighties refer to it, “the future”. The crime rate is the US has risen to over 400 percent. The government establishes the United States Police Force and turns New York’s Manhattan Island into a maximum security prison, with Liberty Island as their base of operations. En route to an important summit conference the President’s plane Air Force One is hijacked by revolutionaries. The President (Donald Pleasance) jumps into a pod and manages to escape the plane as it powers into the World Trade Center, an image that resonates strongly to this day.


Police commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) attempts to lead a rescue mission but his team finds the pod empty. They see a strange man named Romero (Frank Doubleday) emerge from the darkness and orders to them leave, producing one of the President’s fingers as further motivation. Back on Liberty Hauk summons a new prisoner to his office: Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Snake is on his way to Manhattan to serve a life sentence for the crime of armed robbery, but Hauk offers him a way out. If he will infiltrate the prison and rescue the President and an important briefcase he was carrying to the summit in 24 hours Snake will get full immunity. Snake reluctantly accepts but once Hauk has a doctor inject his neck with miniature time bombs that will kill him in 10 seconds he realizes he has no choice.


Climbing aboard a slingshot plane, Snake flies into Manhattan and lands on the roof of the World Trade Center. From there he must journey through the blasted urban jungles of the once prosperous city and fight through gangs of “crazies”. Along the way Snake gathers some unexpected allies including a cabbie named Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), not to mention his old partner-in-crime Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and Brain’s main squeeze Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). Eventually Snake must take on the Duke of New York (Issac Hayes), the self-appointed leader of the prisoners and as dangerous as Snake himself, if he’s to retrieve the leader of the free world and save his own skin.


When it comes to horror movies John Carpenter knows how to work his audience like a master. But when you watch one of his action movies like Assault on Precinct 13 or Escape from New York you can’t help but get the feeling that Carpenter is more in his element here. Nearly every interview with the man has some mention of his love for filmmakers like John Ford and Howard Hawks, directors from the old Hollywood guard who valued character and emotion over mindless sensation. Their best films never featured square-jawed pretty boys as their heroes but rather broken down old warriors haunted by their pasts and tired of fighting even though it’s the only way they know to live. Most of Carpenter’s films always had some trappings from the classic westerns, the genre favored most by Ford and Hawks: the lone hero with a sense of honor, the isolated settings, and the large scale cinematic compositions. From Assault to Big Trouble in Little China to even Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter always knew how to dress a western in any genre he preferred.

With a story he concocted with co-writer and frequent collaborator Nick Castle, Carpenter sets out to make one of the best films of his career with one of the coolest heroes of 1980’s cinema and modern action films in general. Snake Plissken is an enigma from the moment we meet him and will remain so until the end credits. Throughout the film we’re given minor clues about the things he’s done in the past but we come to realize that it’s not important. Snake is who is he is, and that’s all. Accept it, or go watch a Steven Seagal movie.


Although the studio execs were pushing for Carpenter to cast Charles Bronson as Snake (no way, but he would’ve made a great Hauk), the young director had already found his man: Kurt Russell, a former minor league baseball player who had been acting since he has a child mostly in cheese ball Disney flicks and television westerns. Carpenter and Russell had began their working relationship when Russell played Elvis Presley in a TV miniseries directed by Carpenter, but Escape from New York was the first feature film they did together. Thus a powerful creative duo was formed that would bring the geeks of the world much great genre entertainment for years to come.

As for Russell, Snake Plissken will always be his signature role. A bona fide icon of badass, Snake is someone you do not want to mess with right from the start. With his trademark eye patch and laconic manner in place, Russell makes the character his and never lets go. Just as Clint Eastwood will always be the Man with No Name and Dirty Harry and Bruce Willis will always be John McClane, Kurt Russell will forever be Snake Plissken. Like the western outlaws of old, Snake is interested in his own survival but he has a code of honor from his days as a soldier. If someone earns his respect, Snake will back them up all the way. But the world has grown cold and oppressive, and trustworthy people are in extremely short supply further cementing his cynical worldview.


Over the course of the movie Snake will encounter a variety of characters that will either help or hinder his mission, and Carpenter finds the right actors to populate his post-apocalyptic world. On the side of law, there’s Lee Van Cleef as Commissioner Bob Hauk. Hauk is a hard ass but he’s not unsympathetic. Like Snake, Hauk is a former Special Forces soldier who is determined to get the job done by any means necessary. He secretly sympathizes with Snake but knows he might have to sacrifice him for the greater good. Veteran character actor Lee Van Cleef, best known as Angel Eyes from the spaghetti western classic The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, is appropriately leathery and no-nonsense in the role and he gives a terrific performance. The great Tom Atkins (Night of the Creeps) is pretty solid as Hauk’s second-in-command Rehme.


On the island of Manhattan Carpenter lets the casting rip. Ernest Borgnine shows up a friendly cab driver ready to provide a surefire getaway anytime. Borgnine plays the role with enthusiasm and sweet humor; you really like the old guy. Harry Dean Stanton as always is stellar as Brain. What more can you say about this great man? Adrienne Barbeau should’ve been a movie star based on her performance here and in other films. As Brain’s paramour Maggie she’s a real woman in a era of scared little girls running from masked killers, tough and sensitive. Barbeau rules; she’s a goddamned goddess. For several years Carpenter was married to her…the lucky bastard.

Who knew Mr. Hot Buttered Soul could be a classic action movie villain? Issac Hayes puts the sweet soul music aside briefly to rule New York as the Duke. A Number One motherfucker! Hayes matches Russell blow for blow in the soft-spoken stakes, but the Duke doesn’t need words to communicate what’s on his mind when a gesture or sudden action will suffice. Hayes fights for what he believes is rightfully his and never pussies out. When the chips are down he doesn’t depend on subordinates to do his dirty work. The Duke knows how to take care of business. Ol’ Issac was never much of an actor but with his smooth attitude and strong presence he’s a force to be reckoned with.


Let’s have a hearty round of applause for the creative team Carpenter assembled to bring his vision to life. Production designer Joe Alves, best known from his work on Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, creates a brilliant visualization of a devastated Big Apple on an indie movie budget. Dean Cundey, a regular collaborator of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, gives the dark world of Escape from New York the scope of a Big Sky western. Cundey and Carpenter first worked together on The Fog and they would enjoy a healthy professional relationship for several years after. James Cameron got a few early big screen credits as a special effects cameraman and painting some beautiful matte backgrounds.

What would Escape from New York have been without the guidance of the master cinematic craftsman John Carpenter? From the good ol’ days before the existence of MTV when people could enjoy great long takes and sumptuous visuals without squirming in their seats, Escape is a wonderfully composed classical adventure. Underscoring the action is another virtuoso synthesizer score from Carpenter, fittingly moody and hard-driving.

Escape from New York is a spectacular futuristic action classic. It’s one of Carpenter’s best from his prosperous early days, and a stunning reminder that Kurt Russell is an icon of brooding cool.

And remember….“The name’s Plissken!”

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