I've been putting off writing this article for quite some time. And it's not because this movie doesn't deserve the honorary title of "Motherfucking Masterpiece". If anything is a true masterpiece of cinema, this is it. But ever since I was thirteen this has been my favorite movie, and I guess that for some strange reason I've felt that I could never truly do it justice. Besides, if I had written this article when I was thirteen, it would have been four pages of saying "it fucking rocks!" over and over again.
So there I was, thirteen years old, going through middle school and starting the first round of severe depression that would haunt my life for years to come (I'm doing much better now). I was using movies to escape from real life because when you're thirteen it seems like a better idea to hide from your problems instead of confront them head on. Lethal Weapon, Robocop, Schwarzenegger's greatest hits. Anything with a solid dose of action that could make me forget about being depressed, even if it was only for a few hours.
One night, when my family was getting a free preview of some HBO-style channel, Escape from New York came on. My mom told me that I would like it, so I sat down to watch it. Ten minutes after the opening credits were done, I was already sucked in to the world that director John Carpenter had created. I was so mesmerized by the movie that I had virtually forgotten the concept of depression. And when the end credits started to roll, my depression stayed away for a while.
Now I'm not saying that Escape from New York can cure depression. But when you use movies to leave the real world completely, it sure seems like it. Today, after learning a lot of good coping strategies and with the help of some high-powered pills, I don't need to use movies as an anti-depressant. I still use them for escapism, sure, but it's not to leave the world behind. It's to escape from boredom, and to lose myself in some entertainment for a few hours.
And even though I have probably watched this movie a few billion times over these last twelve years, I never get tired of it, and I'm always on the edge of my seat during the final climax.
Now, onto discussing the actual movie.
In the year 1993 (this movie was made in 1981), the crime rate in the United States has risen drastically. New York has been transformed into a city-wide prison. The surrounding waters are patrolled by missle-armed helicopters and the bridges are littered with land mines.
Everything is going well for the prison officials, letting the bad guys tear each other to pieces while they simply make sure no one can get out. But something has to go wrong, otherwise we don't have much of a movie.
Soon, a plot device comes flying in through the night sky? it's Air Force One, hijacked by terrorists who plan to crash the plane into the prison, killing the President. When the Secret Service's attempts to take the plane back fail they toss El Presidente into an escape pod and drop him out the plane, stranding him in New York. A large rescue party is sent in to retrieve him, but they are met by a weirdo who has helped to capture the President. Fearing the Commander-in-Chief's death, they leave the island and plan a one-man stealth mission.
Enter Snake Plissken, the coolest anti-hero on the planet. He's just been caught trying to rob the Federal Reserve and has won the jackpot of a life sentence in New York. But Snake's a former Special Forces hero, and the prison warden wants Snake to rescue the President in exchange for his freedom.
Sounds pretty awesome, huh? And that's only the first ten minutes of the movie.
I won't carry the synopsis on any further, except to say that Snake kills a bunch of people, makes some friends and fights Isaac Hayes, finally getting the President out and winning his freedom.
So aside from an awesome story line, what else does Escape from New York bring to the table? For starters, the cast is fantastic. Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, fresh from his contracts with Disney doing kid movies and TV shows. And while I have met many people who think that Kurt sucked in this movie, I have met far, far more who consider it his most iconic role. And considering who the producers wanted to play Snake (Tommy Lee Jones or Charles Bronson) he's a great pick. After seeing some of the Disney flicks he did, Russell does a great job of throwing those roles off and shows that he's more than qualified to do action movies, as well as playing someone who isn't the squeaky-clean college kid who accidentally turns his brain into a computer.
The rest of the cast does a great job too; Ernest Borganine plays a taxi driver, who is part thrilled to be working with Snake and part terrified of the wrath of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes). Harry Dean Stanton is perfect as the weaselly "Brain", the Duke's main henchman who comes to Snake's aide. Donald Pleasance is the President, and even though he's a Brit, his accent is neutral enough to be an American. And Adrienne Barbeau is thrown in as eye-candy, playing Brain's other, tougher half (although eye-candy isn't the only way to describe her, she's a good actress).
I think that one of the biggest reasons that this movie has become a cult hit is because of the character of Snake Plissken. He's a hard man, turned angry by the war he fought and his disillusionment with his country. Like the Simon and Garfunkel song "I am a Rock", Snake is a rock (but not such a sing-song hippy-type rock like in the song), an island separating himself from everything but his personal moral code and those he manages to consider "friends". He's self sufficient, he's confident, and he's a bit sociopathic. His desire to survive carries him through his mission into the massive prison, keeps him running when he's tired and injured, and his wit makes for great insight into his hidden intelligence. He's not a Mensa candidate, but he knows what he's doing, how to handle any situation and he doesn't accept dead ends (quite literally making an exit for himself at one point).
But even though he seems to care for no one but himself, some of the best scenes are small bits where you see that he actually does give a damn about those around him. He makes a brief friendship with a stranded girl (played by Season Hubley, Russell's wife at the time), and the remorse on his face when a friend dies is genuine.
And a final hallmark of the film is not only John Carpenter's directing style, but the music he creates for the film. Any Carpenter fans know that his self-composed musical scores are a trademark of his films, and the man knows how to do a solid soundtrack. It's not a bunch of songs that you'll find on an album, it's music created for the mood and to elevate the mood. A quick synthesizer shriek here, a beating bass rhythm there, and Carpenter's music, like in all of his films, is incredibly effective.
And while I would love to talk about how great the ending is, I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen the movie. The ending is awesome, enough said.
About two years after I saw Escape from New York, they made a sequel, the largely ignored Escape from L.A. I was about fifteen when this came out, and not being the best judge of films at the time, this became my second favorite movie for a while. But as the years went on I realized how pale of a sequel it really is. It's essentially a remake of Escape from New York. You change the setting, the supporting character's names and add a few new lines of dialogue, you have the sequel. It's not really anything new, and it has dropped from my list of favored movies considerably. But it was still nice to have Snake back for a bit.
Since then, there has been a short-run Snake Plissken comic book, a cancelled video game, a cancelled series of novels, a cancelled anime cartoon, a rumor of a TV show, and plenty of talk but no real action of a third movie. And while I would love to see John Carpenter and Kurt Russell team up again for a third Escape movie (or to see them to team up again on anything), I'm happy enough with Escape from New York that I won't be upset if this never happens (especially if they just do another remake). It's still my favorite movie, and I don't foresee anything topping it for quite some time.