It was perhaps the finest moment in John Carpenter’s career.
Just three years after the surprise success of his genre-defining serial killer film, Halloween, with a couple of TV movies and an interesting ghost story (The Fog) in between, John made one of his most famous films, the Eighties movie of Eighties movies, Escape from New York.
It also re-invented the career of Kurt Russell: after years as a child actor — including an absurdly long run as a Twenty-something teen in a series of Disney movies — the thirty year old Russell became the most infamous of all the Eighties Sci Fi badasses.
Well, after Max Rocketansky.
And maybe “Dutch” Schaefer from Predator.
But you’ve got to admit that’s pretty good company.
Snake Plissken, American war hero turned bank robber, is about to be dumped into the prison city of New York when Air Force One crashes into Manhattan. Instead, he is sent in to rescue the President, but only has 24 hours before the tiny explosive charges in his neck explode and kill him.
It’s a fairly simple set-up, but Carpenter uses it masterfully, creating a frightening, anarchic world, divided up between powerful gangs and with the miles of underground warrens beneath the city overrun by Morlock-like scavengers. There is a lot of detail here, both in the sets themselves and in his world of the future , but it is deliberately left in the background, where it adds depth to the story without slowing it down.
Although you have to admit, the limo with the crystal chandeliers on its front fenders is very cool, even if it doesn’t make much sense.
Except as conspicuous consumption.
I suppose, thanks to our massive, over the top, tentpole action movies today, the brutal action might seem a little tame. Myself, I still think it holds up well, and the film still stands out as one of the best attempts to combine action and Science Fiction.
Also notable is his excellent cast. Lee Van Cleef, a vastly underrated actor who played villains and tough guys in countless films (most memorably in two of Clint Eastwood’s Man Without a Name Westerns) is the real standout here, as the Prison Warden. Harry Dean Stanton shows up in a typically sleazy sort of role, as the guy who switches sides whenever he feels like it. Donald Pleasence is sweaty and nervous as the President (naturally), while Ernest Borgnine gets to be cheerfully goofy as the comic relief. And, of course, Adrienne Barbeau (who was Mrs. Carpenter at the time) plays perhaps the most badass tough girl of her career. I’m a little surprised that she wasn’t all dolled up Hollywood starlet style in this one, but was allowed to look very hard — and, in fact, almost unattractive.
One wishes John Carpenter had made more films like this one, although I have a lot of respect for the amazingly varied films he chose to make over his long career. He would return to Snake again fifteen years later in the sadly underrated Escape From L.A., but audiences weren’t willing to accept the more parodic and self-mocking tone of his sequel. He never managed to get backing for the third film in the series — Escape From Earth — although there has also been talk floating around of a remake of his original.
I, for one, hope that they don’t manage to pull that one off.
His next film was The Thing: it is now recognized as a genre classic, although its reception was decidedly mixed at the time. It would mark the end of his honeymoon with the film critics, but for the moment at least, he could do no wrong. He was young, brash and confident, and it shows.
Now if we could just convince him that we’d all really love to see what the now sixty-seven year old Snake Plissken is up to. I’m sure that Kurt Russell would love to get back into the eyepatch and shaggy mane of hair again.
And I’m sure that whatever Snake is up to these days, it is guaranteed to be badass.
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