John Carpenter one-upped Michael Winner’s fear-mongering, un-ironically fascist 1974 hit Death Wish with 1976’s Assault on Precinct. But if that film implied critique of a police force sowing its own doom through tyrannical tactics, 1981’s Escape from New York paints a portrait of America’s repressed “others” seeking revenge against not only the police, but an entire governmental superstructure. As 1980’s The Fog signified (and 1988’s They Live later solidified), Carpenter is one of the few filmmakers to show a consistent empathy for the working class. Here, the director merged this with certain socio-economic concerns: This was the beginning of Mayor Ed Koch’s famous NYC “clean up” (New York wouldn’t emerge as a fiscally stable municipality until the early ’80s), and the city-wide black-outs and rioting of 1977 were most likely still fresh in peoples’ minds, as well as the beginnings of national recession and mass migration from urban centers to the suburbs. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Carpenter and his crew actually filmed most of Escape from New York in East St. Louis, which was largely destroyed in huge urban fires in 1976 (though probably apocryphal, it has been said that the deserted, burnt-out East St. Louis streets required no set dressing before filming). Here, the real seeps into the fantasy and art imitates life, with an air of simmering angst bubbling under the surface. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” slogan wouldn’t be introduced until 1984, but Escape could be read as a presciently symbolic “fuck you” to such optimistic white-washing. (The characters are the kinds of people who would most likely have been left behind by Reaganomics.)
Look behind the action-star heroics and cool-guy posturing, and there’s a deep sense of regret, a soldier who’s seen too much and who’s been abandoned by his country.
In a future where crime levels have risen by 400%, Manhattan Island is converted into a huge prison, cut off from the rest of the United States. When Air Force One crashes en route to peace talks with Russia and China (read: Cold War paranoia), street gangs kidnap the President, along with a secret tape of monumental importance (read: MacGuffin). Ex-military hero/mercenary Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is enlisted to go in and save the POTUS. The catch? He has only 24 hours to do it, and has been injected with poison to keep him on his mission. This simple set-up is in keeping with Carpenter’s deeply embedded sense of film history; the set-up could’ve worked for a western (Escape from Comanche Territory!) or a World War II picture (Escape from Nazi Germany!). Injecting some of the playful humor and outsized, colorful elements that characterized Walter Hill’s The Warriors, Carpenter creates a mythic NYC that’s a kind of playground, if a dangerous one. Stocked with old pros in supporting roles, the film gets a lot of mileage out of faces: Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ernest Borgnine link the movie to an older generation of filmmaking, while Isaac Hayes injects some modern flair as “The Duke of New York.” Carpenter’s then-wife, Adrienne Barbeau, makes an impression too, although she’s not as central to the action as she was in their previous film together, The Fog. But Kurt Russell is truly the star here: Looking to distance himself from the squeaky-clean image of his previous Disney movies, Russell creates an iconic character with his gruff, terse demeanor, part Clint Eastwood, part punk-rock anarchist. The one-liners may be tough, but while Russell and Carpenter certainly both exude a sense of humor, Snake never becomes a caricature, staying on just the right side of camp. Look behind the action-star heroics and cool-guy posturing, and there’s a deep sense of regret, a soldier who’s seen too much and who’s been abandoned by his country. Snake Plissken is our apocalyptic reincarnation of John Wayne, and he gets one of the great last lines in movies, inverting his “call me Snake” refrain into a contrarian middle finger pointed directly at the man.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.