by Mel Valentin
In John Carpenter's "cult classic," "Escape From New York," Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison. The prison, surrounded by a 50-foot high retaining wall and secured by constantly patrolling armed guards, has been made the "home" for America's worst criminals. To be sent to Manhattan is to serve a life sentence, one where the criminals inside the prison have to fend for themselves, forming gangs or otherwise organizing themselves to survive the harsh, brutal conditions. Manhattan has, in short, become a working illustration of Hobbes' natural condition, of the "war of all against all," where life is "nasty, brutish, and short."This set-up leads to the first major plot development, Air Force One, carrying the president of the United States (Donald Pleasence), is hijacked by a Marxist revolutionary, and crash lands in Manhattan. The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the most powerful gang boss on the island, captures the president, hoping to use him as a bargaining chip to escape Manhattan. As important as recovering the president may be, there's another, far more important reason for saving him: he's carrying a vital audio recording that contains potentially world-changing information. The audio recording will be played at a summit meeting of the world's great powers. The Police Commissioner, Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), faced with an intractable situation, turns to a recently (and conveniently) arrived, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a bank robber apparently sentenced to the maximum-security prison. Plissken, of course, has a Special Forces background, but his cynical, anti-authoritarian attitude has made him an outsider and an outlaw.
"A 'cult classic' fully deserving of the term."
With the all-important world summit about to end in less than 24-hours, Plissken is given the same amount of time to enter Manhattan, and find and rescue the president. Hauk's finds a way to ensure that Plissken won't simply ignore the search-and-rescue mission and flee for parts unknown. Once inside, Plissken receives aid or information from several characters of varying importance, including a young woman inside an abandoned Chock Full O'Nuts (Season Hubley), an overly gregarious cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), Harold 'Brain' Helman (Harry Dean Stanton), and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). Although Brain and Plissken have a backstory that makes them less than allies, Plissken offers Brain and Maggie their freedom in exchange for their help in rescuing the president and recovering the all-important audio recording. Cue action scenes, reversals (several of them), a gladiatorial fight to the death inside a makeshift ring, and a mano-a-mano between Plissken and his chief adversary, just as time is about to run out on Plissken and the world summit.
Snake Plissken has become nothing short of iconic, embodying the kind of self-reliant, self-contained 'cool' that was once exclusively associated with Western heroes. It helps that he's already a legendary figure well before Escape From New York opens. As he's introduced or spotted by other characters, they've all seem to have heard of him, but also express their surprise that he isn't dead (understandably, it becomes a running joke). Given his anti-authoritarian, cynical, me-against-the-world stance, as portrayed by Kurt Russell (Carpenter's producers, concerned about Russell's previous, lightweight roles in Disney comedies, wanted Tommy Lee Jones or Charles Bronson, but Carpenter refused), Snake is undoubtedly no straight-edge hero, but an anti-hero that would become the norm for action heroes in the 1980s and 1990s.
With his eye patch, snake tattoo, camo gear, assortment of weapons, military training, and gravel-voiced line deliveries (modeled after Clint Eastwood, apparently), Snake Plissken wouldn't be out of place in a comic book (in fact, Snake has inspired a comic book series). There's even a James Bond moment as Hauk and his officers introduce Snake to some "high-tech" gadgets (thanks to the limited resources on hand, the gadgets are large, bulky, and of limited usefulness). Snake has also served as the inspiration for the "Solid Snake" character who headlines the popular Metal Gear videogame series. Snake's popularity even led to a sequel re-teaming Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, the underrated Escape From L.A., released in 1996 to uniformly negative reviews and commercial indifference. Alas, Escape From L.A.'s lack of success means that Snake Plissken's future, if any, lies in other media.
As a standalone film, however, Escape From New York isn't without its flaws. Most detractors (and even some supporters) will point to the crude production values and even cruder special effects. While that criticism is certainly valid, some deference has to be given to the limited resources at Carpenter's disposal (roughly $5.5 million). For some, the crude production values are actually the source for one of Escape From New York's pleasures (along with the iconic central character). Others will justifiably point to the absurdity of the summit and the audio recording (i.e., copies could have been easily made) that provides Escape From New York with the all-important, suspense-creating deadline. One too many times, Carpenter seems lost as to where to send Plissken next, resulting in extended scenes of Plissken blithely walking around while the prison's predatory gangs ignore him. On a minor note, the cabbie character appears not just once, but twice, just when Snake and the others need him most. How exactly the cabbie can anticipate where Snake will be is never revealed (it's obviously a cheat that Carpenter hopes we wouldn't notice).Carpenter's vision of the future is certainly a bleak one, with the erosion of the social order leading to the desperate decision to cordon off criminals permanently from the rest of society (rehabilitation is nowhere mentioned as a purpose for incarceration). "Escape From New York" also shows little respect for those in power, with the president of the United States presented as cowardly, venal, and self-interested, unworthy of the respect or deference usually due to the individual occupying that office. Ultimately, Carpenter wants us to side not with the president or the other powers-that-be, but with the defiantly anti-authoritarian Snake Plissken and Snake's final decision to give the president the middle finger (made all the more enjoyable as it occurs during a live news feed to the summit meeting).
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originally posted: 11/27/05 08:58:07