After years of seeing it in pieces, occasionally watching it in its entirety out of a sense of geek obligation and thinking about how it compares to his better works from the same age, I’ve come to the sad and unavoidable conclusion that John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is undeservedly placed among his cannon of classics. It isn’t an awful, eye gouging, pooch screwing of a movie, but there is only small praises to be found in its barren scenery and wishy washy plotting. It’s a b-movie blessed with a great idea but marred by some very under cooked execution on behalf of writer-director Carpenter.
Released in the summer of 1981, Escape From New York marked the first time John Carpenter would work with his soon-to-be favorite leading man, Kurt Russell. Carpenter was still riding high from the phenomenal success of Halloween but had a touch of the sophomore slump with his dopey follow up, The Fog. 30-year old Kurt Russell was mostly untested movie star material. He was known for corny 60’s era Disney movies as a teenager, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and had only recently escaped the confines of a career in TV. The year before Escape he starred in another eventual cult classic, Used Cars. With only this lighthearted resume to back him up Russell was seen as an offbeat choice to play the lead character of Snake Plissken, a menacing, one eyed killer with a rotten attitude towards everyone and everything. Carpenter and Russell would eventually make four more movies together, most of them beloved in film nerd circles everywhere, Escape being one of their most beloved efforts above all.
Escape has a plot so on-the-nose perfect it’s been duplicated, emulated and just plain ripped off by scores of genre filmmakers since, even Carpenter. Set in the ‘distant future’ of 1997, a massive crime wave in the late 80’s forced the U.S. government to wall off the island of Manhattan and turn it into a dumping ground for dangerous convicts and social degenerates. Under constant surveillance, the island is an inescapable Hell run over with freaks, many of whom could be mistaken for the walking dead. One night American terrorists seize Air Force One with the aim of killing the President (Donald Pleasance). The plane crashes on Manhattan but the President is ejected in an escape pod. When a rescue team arrives to retrieve him, a Buscemi look alike creepazoid with freakishly tall hair shows the soldiers a finger, the President’s, and demands they leave. As all this is going on, being brought to Manhattan for incarceration is Snake Plissken, the badass who will begrudgingly save the day. Plissken gets baited to save the President with the promise of a clean slate, the catch though is that Plissken has just 24 hours to get the job done. A peace conference is under way and once it’s over the President’s retrieval becomes somewhat superfluous. More importantly to Snake, he will die from the two microscopic explosive devices cunningly implanted in his neck. The stage is set for a fearsome action movie with a great race against the clock device to keep us moving. So why doesn’t anything feel the least bit urgent, pressing or necessary?
Escape From New York has coasted for decades on the semblance of attitude. With his humorless clinched jaw, unshakable cloak of badass and Eastwood inspired attitude, Russell all but puts Escape in his pocket and walks away with the entire movie. At least that’s what happens for most of its fans. After recently watching Escape for the 4th or 5th time in its entirety, it hit me that Russell has a real case of Boba Fett syndrome. As in he looks cool as shit, he exudes menace but he doesn’t really do anything to warrant the idolatry many have bestowed on him. Plissken isn’t ahead of the game or even very astute most of the time. Sometimes he survives by wits but on some occasions its simply screenplay mandated luck. Russell has enough shitkicker attitude to make the part fun to watch but once you get past that, there isn’t much to the guy. He’s an amoral, asskicking, anti-hero in the Eastwood tradition, but he’s missing something important. Eastwood’s characters were usually fighting for some kind of underdog, dispensing a harsh justice that the law itself couldn’t doll out. Plissken only acts because he has no choice. He doesn’t need to be deep, but he could stand to be something except a grizzled nihilist. If he’s disinterested and doesn’t care about what’s happening around him, why should we care? We don’t and that’s a big problem. The character has potential, but there’s just not enough on the page besides a lot of jokes about everyone thinking Plissken is already dead.
Escape has scores of other issues besides Plisken. He’s the least of its issues. The shaggy screenplay feels thoroughly half assed. It leaves numerous plot points and story devices half explained or not clear at all. We’re told there’s a peace conference the President must attend within 24 hours or…..what exactly? A war is mentioned but no details are forthcoming. If the 24 hours go by with no President would they not have bothered to rescue him? That scenario is stupid but it’s implied as a possibility. Tied directly into this is the cassette tape MacGuffin. The President is carrying some supposedly all important cassette tape which he intends to play to the delegates so impatiently awaiting his appearance. What’s on it is never divulged and in the end, after Plissken double crosses everyone and destorys the tape, couldn’t someone simply say what was on it? It’s a cassette tape for God’s sake. Why didn’t someone find a boombox and dup that shit or better yet, just tell the President what’s on it? It’s a lame plot device and Carpenter’s inability to forward think technology in the slightest is kind of surprising.
Next there’s the sinister character of The Duke (Isaac Hayes). His plan for the President isn’t very clever or impressive. He’s going to march across one of the city bridges with the President as hostage and demand the release of himself and his legion of followers? How’s that going to work? Why would it work? There’s no door into this joint. Was he going to keep the President hostage forever? Add to this the fact he keeps sitting around and waiting to execute his grand plan and you’re left with a bad guy who just seems disinterested in his own getaway. Speaking of getaways, who the Hell are Stanton and Barbeau having a shootout with on top of the World Trade Center? And why are these mysterious marauders throwing the one thing which could help them escape, Plissken’s glider, off the damn building? And since when can people go up and down 50 stories of building in 8 seconds? Carpenter also cheats on his 24 hour gimmick. Faced with a need to get to the end of his story he simply knocks Plissken unconscience for 10 hours so we can jump to the conclusion, as well as avoid shooting in the daylight. Top all of this off with the fact that Carpenter has to base his whole story on a huge coincidence. The Presidential plane crashes just as Plissken is being deported to New York. What luck.
If Escape From New York has an electrifying element it’s the supporting cast. Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrianne Barbeau and Adrianne Barbeau’s tits make a compelling cavalcade of talent. And putting Isaac Hayes in your movie probably seemed like genius on paper. Apparently Hayes wasn’t up to the challenge, or more likely, given the material to make his role compelling. His Duke character is a lot like Plissken in that he’s another guy who looks cool but doesn’t do much but ride around in a limo with hanging chandeliers on the hood. A nice touch. Hayes has a handful of fun, throwaway lines but not much else. Pleasance gets to chew a little scenery but sounds pretty damned English to be the President of the United States. Borgnine is an old pro having fun playing Cabbie, but he’s basically a plot device on wheels. Whenever Plissken needs to vamoose from a situation Cabbie and his cab appear as if summoned from thin air. Harry Dean Stanton and Adrianne Barbeau make a decent enough duo but the movie doesn’t really get much mileage out of them. There’s clearly something implied between them, she goes all homicidal/suicidal when Stanton gets blown up, but whatever is there is barely dwelled on. Outshining everyone is Van Cleef, a man who exudes such a sinister vibe he could probably make most grown men piss themselves. Even though he doesn’t have much of a role to play he elevates the film with every minute he’s on screen. He and Russell have the give and take that Van Cleef had with Eastwood in their Man With No Name films, except this time Van Cleef has the upper hand he could never quite get on Eastwood, and he loves it. Why Carpenter and his co-screenwriter simply didn’t make Van Cleef the defacto heavy is a good question which looks to have no answer.
All of these qualms feel as if they belong squarely on the shoulders of Carpenter and his co-writer Nick Castle. Carpenter is a director of marginal talent who has managed to make great movies. Most of his better films involve small situations and tight settings. The arctic confines and increasing paranoia of The Thing chill the viewer to the core. The simple shadowy figure of Michael Myers still scares the bejesus out of people. In Starman Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen score the best relationship he ever captured and it’s done solely from the confines of a Mustang. Christine was nothing more than three teens and and evil bitch of an automobile. Faced with trying to build and visualize a dead Manahattan, inhabit it with criminal rabble, get his characters around and bring together a half dozen eccentric personalities for an action flick, Carpenter’s ability far exceeds his grasp. Escape never builds any sene of momentum or urgency. The movie feels static and looks flat. The quick pulse it aims to have keeps slipping away in a narrative which feels like it needs a few more turns through the screenplay machine. Coincidence, circumstance and just plain laziness are all over it. Russell carries as much of the proceedings as he can but it’s hard not to notice that Escape is constantly dogged by a lack of urgency and forethought.
This is the only Carpenter classic I have never been able to bring myself around to. I’ve been a devoted fan of Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Christine and Starman for most of my movie watching life. But I could never bring myself around to get excited about this one. After one more revisit with it, yet another attempt on my part to find and feel what people love about it, it’s about time to give up. It’s a movie which will remain a dedicated following for years to come, but I can’t bring myself to join the ranks. Making things even more depressing is that when finally given a chance to return to the property for a much desired sequel 15 years later, Escape from L.A., Carpenter, Russell and the rest of the crew choose to slap together a tactless, dumb psuedo-remake with most of the same mistakes. It was final proof that perhaps Carpenter should have given this bigger ideas to someone with a little more know how and a lot more ability.