Cult auteur John Carpenter established his pulp sensibility with the horror films Halloween and The Fog, but he tackled the action genre with 1981's Escape from New York, a picture so lean, mean, down, dirty and sly that it appeals to just about every red-blooded American male moviegoer. It's a fair bet women won't find it quite as enchanting, though Adrienne Barbeau's formidable prison moll may offer some compsensation. Both sexes can agree on the appeal of Russell's "Snake" Plissken, who makes the most of one eyepatch, two bulging biceps, and the attitude that keeps on giving.
For cult movie buffs, just the name Adrienne Barbeau evokes the kind of dark, loopy, pumped-up entertainment Escape from New York provides. A glance at the complete cast list certifies the picture as a ready-made camp classic: Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Ernest Borgnine as enthusiastic inmate "Cabbie," Isaac Hayes as the self-proclaimed "Duke of New York," Harry Dean Stanton as semi-savvy "Brain," and, in a "special appearance," Season Hubley. Writers Carpenter and Nick Castle (The Last Starfighter) concoct a doozy of a futuristic dystopian plot: a dramatic rise in the crime rate has necessitated the conversion of Manhattan island into a maximum security prison. In 1997, Air Force One crash-lands there, triggering a high-stakes hostage situation. United States Police Force Commissioner Bob Hauk (Van Cleef) offers just-arrived inmate "Snake" Plissken (Russell) a pardon in exchange for recovering the President in time for him to deliver sensitive information on nuclear fusion to an international summit. Hauk puts it simply: Plissken has less than twenty-four hours to save the human race. Gentlemen, start your engines!
The delicious comic-book absurdity of the premise (we all know New Yorkers would never give up their Holy Land to prisoners) instructs the audience to let go and enjoy the ride, which includes enough decaying atmosphere and gang-violent conflagration--including a gladiatorial cage match--for a year's worth of "B" pictures. New York is the ghost town and Van Cleef the corrupt sheriff in Escape from New York's thinly disguised postmodern Western, with ex-soldier Russell as the anti-establishment hero who won't cotton to anyone's code but his own. Russell understands Plissken to be a man surrounded by moral midgets, meaning he has only himself to trust. The ultimate loner, he'll also have to amuse himself: he's a man constantly having a private in-joke at the expense of his surroundings. In this way, Plissken set a new standard for the '80s "man alone," "shoot 'em up" action hero.
As usual, Carpenter scores his film ("in association with Alan Howarth"), and he gets great assists from cinematographer Dean Cundey (Jurassic Park, Back to the Future) and production designer Joe Alves, who turned depressed East St. Louis into Manhattan of the future. The wit shown in the casting (the English Pleasence as a Nixonian President, for starters) extends to the denouement, one of the great kickers in genre cinema. Carpenter was just getting started; having also directed Russell in the lead of the 1979 telefilm Elvis, Carpenter went for an immediate "three-fer" with Russell in the lead of The Thing, a terrific remake of Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World. The duo would reteam again for overtly comic variations on Escape from New York: Big Trouble in Little China and proper sequel Escape from L.A., which put the nail in the coffin for the franchise until the inevitable twenty-first century reboot (which, yes, is currently making its way through the Hollywood pipeline).
MGM gives Escape from New York its domestic Blu-ray debut in a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack that unfortunately prefigures a "Special Edition" re-release down the road. Since that probably won't happen until the remake is poised to hit theaters, die-hard fans will want to consider this reasonably priced package. It entirely lacks for bonus features save for the theatrical trailer on the DVD, but the hi-def image upgrade is significant. The picture retains a natural filmic look, key to Carpenter's dark aesthetic. Other than a bit of mild flicker, the image is stable and clean, with dim color and a somewhat soft resolution. While those characteristics may sound worrying, they're actually signs of a lack of digital tinkering to bring the film in line with the current hi-def vogue. Rather, the film appears to get a faithful rendering of Carpenter and Cundey's original intentions. The film gets deluxe treatment in the audio department with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that gives full body to the music and livens up the special effects with impressive use of the surround channels.
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