Movie Review: Escape From New York

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Director: John Carpenter

Writers: John Carpenter, Nick Castle

Stars: Kurt Russell, Lee Van CleefDonald PleasenceHarry Dean Stanton

The thing is about Escape from New York, it’s really hard to tell just how seriously it takes itself. I had the same thing with another John Carpenter film They Live which is a lot more intelligent than Escape From New York but that doesn’t mean that Escape From New York doesn’t have promise. 

The plot of Escape From New York is that in the future the entire area of Manhattan is now a walled off prison, from which you can go in, but not out again, Berlin Wall style. The country is at an ambiguous war with maybe China and Russia and, basically, everything’s gone to shit. When the president, on his way to a summit with important documents that could stop the war and put his country on the road to recovery, crash lands Air Force One inside the wall, ex-war hero turned criminal Bob ‘Snake’ Pliskin is strong armed into to going in and getting him. It’s actually a credit to the film that that’s all handled without feeling like information overload. 

The key to just how tongue in cheek this film is lies I think in Kurt Russel’s performance as Snake. We know he can be a bad ass in John Carpenter films, (The Thing), we know he can parody his bad ass image to great effect in John Carpenter films, (Big Trouble in Little China), so where does this performance lie? Maybe it would help if I’d seen Big Trouble In Little China, but the whole aesthetic of this film is one that knows it’s a b-movie and embraces that. Now that’s lightly different from an intentional b-movie, (Sharknado), which inevitably turn out to be crap, or a send up or parody of b-movies, (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), the secret is that it really has this self awareness that makes it go with a swing. Kurt Russel is actually I think having a lot of fun with this character, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. 

Watching this film the people I was watching it with kept saying things like ‘it’s knock off Mad Max‘, ‘every 80s action cliche rolled into one’ which I think are both slightly unfair. The Mad Max comment I may come back to but I would to sit on more to form an eloquent argument against it, mainly I think because Mad Max is going for slightly different notes than this film. The comment about 80s action movies, this film came out in 1981, and even if it was what my friend said, would that be such a bad film, you could look at it as a post modern send up of 80s movies, which I believe we’ve established anyway it isn’t. 

I think that even with this in mind, the film wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the outstanding production design. It’s all well and good poking fun at yourself in a post modern fashion, but if you’ve clearly put no effort in then what’s the point? I can see where the comment about Mad Max came from, with the costume design echoing it, but I think that Mad Max‘s costumes reflect a desert wasteland where as Escape From New York represents something resembling Arkham, (because that’s really what Arkham is let’s be honest). The production design is also fantastic and really compensates for some of the more shoddy effects, the work is which the film inahbits is really beautifully realised. 

In the end I am a bit uncomfortable with the fact that the film may be forgiving it’s own schlocky quality by claiming post-modernism or homage in the way of someone like Eli Roth, (Hostel, The Green Inferno), however this film has something Roth’s films don’t; fun, and a real sense of humour and quality and ambition to the film making. It’s a really fun, if occasionally campy, and occasionally with quite terribly plane effects, b movie. 

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