In the far-off year of 1988, the crime rate in America rises 400 percent. To counter this, the government walls off Manhattan, turning it into a maximum security prison. In 1997, when the President's plane is brought down by the anarchist group National Liberation Front of America and the President is kidnapped by
ninjas the Duke of New York, US Police Force Commissioner Bob Hauk sends in convicted felon/hardass (and former Special Forces soldier) Snake Plissken to get the President out.
Fresh from THE FOG, John Carpenter teams up with Kurt Russell for the first time and brings us the badass known as Snake Plissken to f*ck some sh*t up for Issac Hayes and the rest of the miscreants in New York. One of my fave John Carpenter movies, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was a blast of B-movie action then as it is now.
Props to Carpenter for sticking to his guns and casting Russell as Snake instead of Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones. Kurt was getting sick of the Disney comedy thing, anyway. A grittier James Bond without the gadgets, Snake just exudes badass as a character (the journey in the theatre is proof of it). Not to say that Kurt's the only good thing going in the acting department, everyone's on the ball here. Lee Van Cleef (still smoking the pipe from THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY) is great as the crafty Bob Hauk. Is it just me, or did Cleef just naturally look sly? Issac Hayes is fun as The Duke, while Harry Dean Stanton, Donald Pleasance, Adrienne Barbeau (and her Barbeaus) and Ernest Borgnine add more to the mix of interesting characters with their respective performances.
Another thing is a trademark of Carpenter's: the look of the film. While things don't exactly work all the time ($6 million budgets in 1981 will do that), you'd be hard-pressed to figure out which parts of the film were shot in New York, St. Louis, Atlanta or Los Angeles. Obviously, you wouldn't find the WTC or Liberty Island in St. Louis. But then again, how would you know if what you were seeing wasn't in New York without Carpenter stating as such? Delving deeper, it's impressive the fact that Carpenter was able to achieve a ruined-city look from a multitude of locations and keep it believable. Sure, it's kind of cheesy having The Duke's personal car equipped with chandeliers, but it just adds a perverted sense of prestige and importance to something stuck in a giant prison full of who-knows-what.
As I said, the film's look didn't work as well as it could've looked. The opening scene of being at Liberty Island felt more like being an airport than anything, and at times New York didn't quite look as gritty. The site of the President's plane crash really felt out of place with the abandoned but not quite derelict look of the following scenes. I give Carpenter points for trying, though. The other thing is that while you know Snake is a 'lone wolf' type of guy, I didn't like Carpenter's decision to get rid of almost every secondary character associated with Snake. It wouldn't matter too much if you didn't give a crap about them, but since they were so well developed as characters, it felt kind of lame for them to get the axe when they did.
Minor blemishes aside, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is a treat for those fans of dystopian future action films that love a 'take no sh*t' type of anti-hero in Snake Plissken. There's no real 'message' behind the story, but who cares? It's just a fun film to watch, and be honest: when was the last time you sat down and wanted an action film that made you think about its message? Bottom line, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is a classic of the genre, and deserves a spot on your shelf.
Video: While the old SE DVD transfer from 2003 was a marked improvement over the original release, this is 1080p 2.35:1 widescreen is a leap over both, though not so much in terms of detail. Given that the film was shot with extremely low light levels, you're not going to get the pristine grain-free look without scrubbing things over with DNR, and anyone who's checked out Fox's latest Blu-Ray of PREDATOR knows what happens when you want grain-free picture with a film that's designed to look gritty. So anyways, here we still have a stronger range of colour and detail (somewhat) over the DVD, despite the picture feeling a bit dim in spots. It's probably the best the film will look, at this point.
Audio: Love Carpenter and Alan Howarth's score? You'll really love it with this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Great use of cross-directional movement and great ambiance, this is another plus over the DVD version. There are moments where the dialogue tended to sink into the background, but even then the film sounds great.
Remember all the goodies on the 2003 SE DVD? The great commentary with Carpenter and Russell? The deleted scene? The making of doc? The comic book? Yeah, Fox didn't bother with any of that. Part of the reason why you would buy the rights from MGM's catalog is that you'd put some effort into what you're going to eventually sell, guys. It's not like things wouldn't fit, and even if you needed a second disc, toss the friggin' SD flipper disc you included as a cheap way to boost sales! Really, you neglect to include any extras, yet you put together another one of those lame DVD/Blu-Ray combos that won't matter in a couple of years when everyone's moved over to the Blu-Ray format? Screw you, Fox. You know it says something about a release when the main menu doesn't even have the film's name on it.
I know the price is right, but come on. If you absolutely must have some of the original extras on Blu-Ray, spring for the UK version here, though don't expect better picture, as that release is riddled with edge enhancement and some weird colour. Bottom line, if you pick up ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on Blu-Ray, be sure you keep your original 2003 DVD pack.
Take a great director like John Carpenter, pair him with a great actor like Kurt Russell, and put them in a movie involving New York as a giant prison. Sounds like a winner to me, which is really what ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is. It's a B-movie that aspires to be that much more, and really did. Fox didn't give a sh*t about that, and instead they put modest effort into the transfer and audio while leaving out all the supplements from the 2003 DVD release. Bastards.