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John Carpenter's Escape From New York (The Test Of Time)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must-see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY JOHN CARPENTER

STARRING KURT RUSSELL, LEE VANN CLEEF, HARRY DEAN STANTON, ISAAC HAYES, TOM ATKINS

Be honest yo…which of John Carpenter’s non-horror films do you revisit the most? Is it They Live? Starman? Big Trouble in Little China? Perhaps you’re an Elvis or Assault on Precinct 13 die-hard. Whatever the case, let us know below.

Psych! There’s only one right answer to the rhetorical trick question...and that of course is Carpenter’s iconic dystopian sci-fi action onslaught Escape From New York (WATCH IT HERE/OWN IT HERE), a landmark achievement that celebrates its 40th anniversary on July 10, 2021. The film was not only a massive hit upon its theatrical release - grossing more than $25 million against a $6-7 million budget - but it has gone to be recognized as one of the most well-made, viscerally engaging, and all-time badass action joints ever assembled. With a stellar cast of veteran character actors supporting one of the greatest screen characters of all time in Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), the oft-imitated but never duplicated cinematic salvo escalates the decaying urban visual tableau of Mad Max and The Warriors to daring new heights with its ticking-clock premise, top-notch performances, and unassailable action set-pieces.

But 40 years is a long-ass time, and while the film is poised to enjoy its Ruby Anniversary next month, it’s worth wondering just how well Escape From New York still plays in 2021. Has Snake’s skin shed one time too many or has he proven to be an immortal Ouroboros that continues to regenerate itself ad infinitum? Let’s get into Escape From New York vs. The Test of Time below!

THE STORY: Co-written by Nick Castle, who played The Shape in much of Carpenter’s watershed slasher film Halloween (Jamie Lee Curtis also narrates the opening missive), the story of Escape From New York was conceived by Carpenter in 1974 in response to President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. At the time, no studio was interested in making the film, but when Halloween became a massive hit, Carpenter was afforded the chance to make the film as he saw fit. Also inspired by his trip to the seedier side of Manhattan, Carpenter came up with an idea set 16 years in the future (1997), when the entire state of New York has been turned into a high-tech prison for the nation’s most dangerous criminals.

When the U.S. President’s (Donald Pleasance) aircraft is hijacked by rebels protesting racist police brutality and downed inside the perilous prison state of New York, the powers that be led by Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) coerce convicted bank robber and laconic one-eyed badass Snake Plissken to go behind enemy territory and rescue the President before he is harmed by the cretinous street thugs. Adding inherent drama is the 22-hour timeframe that Snake is given to complete the task. If he does so, he will be paroled. If not, he remains in prison. Worse yet, if he tries to escape, his heart will stop in 10-15 seconds flat due to micro-charges implanted in his carotid arteries. Armed with acerbic attitude, a Mac 10 with rifle scope and silencer, and an intimidating eye-patch (which was Kurt Russell’s idea), Snake trundles through a throng of ultra-violent baddies and beats, bashes, and brutalizes their brains the f*ck out!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Given the mastery of Carpenter, it comes as no surprise that the majority of the film still retains its priapic potency, maximum machismo, and overall entertainment value. Many reasons account for such, none more important than the central premise and immersive world-building, the brilliantly designed action sequences, and the powerful performance from Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, whom the actor has claimed as his favorite to play and the movie is his favorite among the ones he’s starred in.

The basic plot of the film and the way it is clearly and concisely set up at the beginning immediately establishes the stakes and gives the story a very focused narrative for the viewers to easily follow along. This continues to go a long way in instantly grabbing the viewer and keeping them engaged throughout. Moreover, the ticking-clock subplot adds inherent drama that adds to the sense of urgency and immediacy, which in turn allows the story to retain its thrilling tempo and breathless pacing. The compelling premise alone contributes to the film’s lasting legacy.

The premise is augmented by the way in which Carpenter, his longtime DP Dean Cundey, and the set decorators built such a vivid dystopian wasteland to resemble future Manhattan. Unable to film in New York, the production team scoured the country until finding a perfect location in East St. Louis, Missouri, where most of the exterior scenes were filmed. The city featured similar architecture to New York and already had several abandoned, rundown buildings that could be credibly turned into the decaying cityscape Carpenter envisioned from the onset. The stark dichotomy between the high-tech, neon-dipped police state above ground and the dingy, torch-lit subterranean atmosphere Snake traverses in search for the President remains among the movie’s strongest aesthetic achievements. The viscerally immersive and deeply engaging lived-in world that Carpenter builds makes us feel like we’re right there in the fiery, graffiti-strewn streets alongside Snake every step of the way.

But come on, the best part of the movie is, was, and will always be Snake Plissken himself...one of the all-time coolest action characters ever created. With raw magnetic masculinity and mirthless take-no-shit attitude, Snake’s physical appearance - the leather jacket, eyepatch, dangling cigarette, cobra tattoo, etc. - perfectly matches his personality as a dangerous outlaw with a scarred past who is able to stomach the deadliest beasts on the planet. Russell, who notoriously patterned his performance after Clint Eastwood, imbues such a gruff macho toughness, unimpressed level of coolness, and air of abject badassery as Snake that he instantly became the paragon of 80s action movie physicality...a year before the mantle was picked by Sly, and Arnie. There’s a reason why Snake is Russell’s favorite of his own characters, and why Carpenter felt the need to return the character to the big screen 15 years later. The dude is the ultimate action hero’s action hero!

One scene that continues to stand out is the brutal boxing battle Snake engages in during the final act, in which is forced to wage a dogged deathmatch with Slag (Ox Baker) in front of The Duke (Isaac Hayes). The undersized and underdog Snake flexes his physical prowess but also outwits his opponent with a shrewd strategy, a recurring theme of the film that is crystallized into a priceless gem in this scene alone. Between the credible characterization and the evocative underground environment, this scene perfectly encapsulates the best of what Escape From New York has to offer. Raw testosterone coursing through every f*cking pixel!

And frankly, we haven’t even touched on the splendid supporting performances in the film, which go a long way in keeping the entire story believable from beginning to end. Harry Dean Stanton as Brain (suggested by the originally-cast Warren Oats, who was too ill to accept), Van Cleef as Hauk (who filmed his scenes in one day), Pleasance as the President (who drew on his POW experience for the hostage role), Ernie Borgnine as Cabbie (specifically written for him), Tom Atkinson as Police Captain Rheme, and Hayes as The Duke all give kickass turns in the film which continue to contribute to the movie’s overall appeal.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Considering how the film is set in 1997, it’s safe to say the accuracy of Carpenter’s vision of the future in 1981 kind of blows nowadays. While the early exposition regarding racist police brutality is more timely than ever, the notion of an entire state turned into a giant flaming prison seems pretty risible in retrospect. However, this does nothing to sully the overall enjoyment level of the movie in 2021. While it’s also kind of hard to avoid how the much weaker sequel Escape From L.A. marginally degrades Snake’s namesake, as well as Carpenter’s for that matter, it’s not enough to tarnish this film as an all-time sci-fi action great.

THE VERDICT: 40 years later, Escape From New York remains one of John Carpenter’s finest films. The excellent premise, imaginative world-building, vivid set designs, and well-executed action sequences are among the movie’s largest lasting legacies, none of which eclipse the towering turn from Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, one of the coolest and most kickass action heroes of all time. I still wanna be this motherf*cker when I grow up!

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