It's no secret that John Carpenter made a lot of really fun movies in the first ten to fifteen years of his career. Most of them are now considered cult classics and 1980's mainstays. Watching one of his movies brings me back to the days of looking at the walls of VHS tapes at the video rental on a Friday night, trying to decide what to watch with my friends.
Escape from New York is one of those culty '80's movies that somehow eluded me in my rental-frequenting adolescence. The story is gloriously ridiculous and pretty minimal: It is the future. The year 1997. New York City has been converted into a giant walled island prison. On its way to a summit, Air Force One is hijacked and crashed into the city. The president (Donald Pleasance) survives, only to be caught and held hostage by the inmates. The guards, at a stalemate, have no choice but to recruit a former prisoner, Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell in one of his most iconic performances), to rescue him.
The movie is goofy and tongue-in-cheek, yet still sincere, in that way that Carpenter's more action oriented fare is. I love the hilariously dated vision of the future we're given, with Atari-quality computer graphics and whatnot. Plissken must go through a lot to save the president, who is basically dead weight. The prison warden (Spaghetti Western legend Lee Van Cleef) straps a bomb to him and gives him a 24 hour deadline. He teams up with a cheerful cab driver (Ernest Borgnine), and an imprisoned scientist and his girlfriend (Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau). He faces various New York gangs, all sorts of crazies, and The Boss (Isaac Hayes), the prison kingpin.
Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken is, well, it's Kurt Russell's Clint Eastwood. He walks into town like The Man with No Name, cleans out the riff raff (well, to an extent. It's a prison.), and gets out of dodge. He has very little dialogue throughout, he just conveys his character through squinty stares and sneers. I love that Carpenter had Russell do Eastwood in this and John Wayne in Big Trouble in Little China.
Harry Dean Stanton is pretty great as The Brain, too. I bet he didn't get too many chances to play scientists throughout his career.
Escape from New York provides a whole lot of fun, and delivers as an over the top action movie and as a piece of cheesy 80's kitsch. I love that Carpenter had Russell do Clint Eastwood in this and John Wayne in Big Trouble in Little China. Big Trouble is still my favorite of Carpenter's films, but the two movies make great companions.