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Escape From New York

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Escape From New York

Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef
Director: John Carpenter
Rated: R
RunTime: 99 Minutes
Release Date: January 1981
Genres: Action, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense

*Also starring: Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, Season Hubley

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Whether the world today is in a good or bad shape is a matter of debate. However, many would agree that the world looks much better than in the visions of film-makers from late 1970s and early 1980s. The movies that marked the Golden Age of Science Fiction cinema - MAD MAX, BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN - painted the near future (and some of the periods in which we live now) in very dark colours. Among some of the directors who had joined the trend was John Carpenter, young but already respectable director, who had established his reputation with very cheap, but effective genre films like DARK STAR, ASSAULT ON PRECINT 13 and HALLOWEEN, who later became cult classics. His futuristic action thriller ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, with some 7 millions US$ in budget, was his first trip into the big budget territory. Although some of the contemporary critics saw film as a sell-out, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK became cult classic too. Even the dreadful sequel ESCAPE FROM L.A. failed to ruin the reputation of the original. It is somewhat ironic that ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK marked the critical milestone of Carpenter's career - after this film, the filmmaker went mainstream, and his career, same as the world in this movie, went south.

Among all the post-apocalyptic and dark futuristic films, that thrived in that era of pessimism, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK has the most outrageous plot premise. In 1988, the crime in USA has quadrupled and the government, unable to preserve law and order by any other means, decided to turn Manhattan into maximum security prison. The prisoners forced to spend the rest of their lives behind high walls, surrounded by machineguns, minefields and thousands of policemen and soldiers with shoot to kill orders. Into this living hell falls plane carrying U.S. President (played by Donald Pleasance), who is immediately taken hostage by the inmates. Prison warden Hawk (Lee Van Cleefe) decides to rescue President using the talents of "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell), convicted bank robber and former World War 3 veteran. In exchange for his freedom, Plissken must enter the prison and rescue the President in less than 24 hours. His dedication to the job is enhanced with surgically implanted mini-bombs within his arteries.

For the viewers who see this film for the first time, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK might look somewhat silly, considering the fact that the bleak future, depicted in it, never happened. It is inconceivable that the US government would try to solve the crime problem by destroying the nation's top economic and cultural centre. However, those viewers who manage to suspend disbelief (among other things, we are to believe that WW3 wouldn't go nuclear and that the wartime America would still have efficient leftist underground), should be rewarded with more than fine piece of cinema. First of all, unlike many of the films inspired by it (Enzo G. Castellari's rip-offs), this film has a unique atmosphere, provided by cheap yet inventive and very effective production design and special effects. The Manhattan skyline, seen in total darkness, although matte, has a very menacing look. The music, again composed by multitalented Carpenter, is monotonous yet still effective - sometimes being illustration of the action scenes, but most of the time serving as some kind of ironic commentary towards the whole movie.

However, the best icon of this film is the protagonist. "Snake" Plissken, brilliantly portrayed by former Disney child actor Kurt Russell, is one of the finest examples of anti-heroes in modern cinema. With the anti- establishment look of 1960s rebels, combined with the world-weary voice that brings memories of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti western phase, Kurt Russell created one of the most effective action protagonists in decades to come. His character is superbly portrayed with only few lines. Of course, Russell isn't alone - he shares film with a lot of great character actors in small but memorable roles. Lee Van Cleef, playing the warden, with his presence connects this film with Sergio Leone's classics. Ernest Borgnine is also very effective in a role of the last remaining New York cabby, while always reliable Harry Dean Stanton shines in the role of Brain. Isaac Hayes is great as the charismatic chief villain, Duke of New York.

Compared with some of the more recent products of action genre, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK looks somewhat slow. There are relatively few action scenes, and they don't last long. Some of the critics tend to see this as a movie's flaw, because the long pauses aren't used by Carpenter to show more of apocalyptic New York and its prison society. Others point out that the most of the movie takes place at night, which could be explained with Carpenter's budgetary restrictions. However, despite those flaws, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is still a very good movie. Failed as futuristic vision, it is still a superb action adventure, movie that makes us nostalgic towards the times when the future looked bleak.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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