When you look at how action cinema developed over the 1980s, it’s now clear to see that Escape From New York is one of the films which established the template for the muscular action hero. John Carpenter’s 1981 film (his second of many with Kurt Russell following Elvis in 1979) is a futuristic western set in 1997. When the US President (Donald Pleasence) is shot down over New York (which has become a prison) only one man can save him – Snake Plissken, a former soldier with one eye and a whole lot of attitude.
A beautifully crafted piece of low budget action cinema, Escape From New York offers a wonderful dystopian alternate future (if you can have such a thing) and a bizarre selection of supporting characters played by an amazing cast: Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau. Everything and everyone in the film looks used and worn.
Almost a continuation of the type of sci-fi films that Charlton Heston made in the 1960s and 1970s (Planet Of The Apes, Omega Man, Soylent Green), there’s a wonderful bleakness to Escape From New York. It would also seem to be the precursor of 1980s action, with its muscle-bound hero and smart-ass one-liners. Would we have had something like The Terminator without Carpenter’s movie? I doubt it – this was fresh and feisty when it first hit back in 1981.
Most of the action takes place at night and nobody can be trusted (not even our hero). The mean streets of New York were actually filmed in East St. Louis, Illinois but you would never know. The special effects hold up well (a young James Cameron worked on the film) and the action sequences are incredibly well put together. The year 1997 never looked so uninviting.
Anti-hero Snake Plissken has become Kurt Russell’s trademark role and he embraces all the character’s quirks and traits. When he shot the film, Russell was still attempting to break-out from being a Disney child star and he puts his all into making Plissken memorable. A piss and vinegar attitude, Clint Eastwood whisper and eyepatch make the character one of the all-time cinematic greats.
Escape From New York is John Carpenter working at the top of his powers, bringing his visual style and dark humour to deliver an excellent sci-fi actioner with a wonderful central performance from Kurt Russell. What more could you want?