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USA 1981
Directed by
John Carpenter
99 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

Escape From New York

John Carpenter’s film opens in the near future of 1988 when New York City has deteriorated to such a low that the island of Manhattan has been completely walled in, effectively turning it into the world's largest prison with its inmates prevented from escaping by armed guards in helicopters. The film’s story proper starts in 1997 when the U.S. President's plane is hijacked by political extremists who crash it into the middle of New York City. The President, who has survived by ejecting in a specially-made pod falls into the hands of subterranean lowlife and renegade commando-turned-criminal, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), is sent to rescue him.

Escape from New York has considerable cachet as a cult film but like many cult films its appeal is limited. In fact, however good it might have looked to post-adolescent males in 1981 it is an inane film, its potentially engaging dystopian premise barely explored beyond its production design and its action sequences underwhelmingly realized (compare it for instance to the much bigger budgeted Die Hard which came out the same year). 

Of course to some extent its low budget shortcomings are its appeal with the film having the same kind of junkyard aesthetic, feral characters and tongue-in-cheek post-apocalyptic posturings that made the Mad Max films so popular around the same period (Mad Max 2 – Road Warrior also came out the same year).  The dated special effects and rudimentary computer technology and Carpenter's own synthesizer score all add to the overall effect, for good or ill depending on your perspective

Kurt Russell appears to be channelling Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name albeit none too effectively as he plays the monocular tough guy, his long locks waving manfully as he runs after or from the low lives. Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton and. Ernest Borgnine turn in wincingly embarrassing performances (and given their CVs that is saying something) while jobbing actress Adrienne Barbeau appears throughout in a fetching décolleté outfit and Isaac Hayes turns up as a subterranean crime boss. Only the impassive Lee Van Cleef emerges without a taint.

A good cult film is one that in one way or another transcends its shortcomings, Escape from New York does exactly the opposite, it sinks with them in a campy slough.




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