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Escape From New York (Special Edition) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 16 December 2003

Escape From New York

MGM Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Season Hubley, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau
release year: 1981
film rating: Two and a Half Stars
sound/picture: Three Stars
reviewed by: Paul Lingas

The year is 1997 (keep in mind that this was 17 years into the future from when the film was shot), and because of the skyrocketing crime rate in the United States, Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. The prisoners are kept in by the rivers and by a 17-foot-high wall on the surrounding shores. Liberty Island has been turned into the command post. Due to a terrorist incident on board Air Force One, the President’s plane crashes in Manhattan and the President (Donald Pleasence) while safe in his escape pod, is captured by the inmates and brought into the clutches of the Duke (Isaac Hayes). Kurt Russell stars as Snake Plissken, an eyepatched, tight-shirt-wearing former Special Forces officer who has resorted to crime.

We don’t know why he’s been arrested, but just before he is due to be incarcerated, the warden Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) proposes that Snake rescue the President in return for a full pardon. After some snappishly witty dialogue, Snake agrees, but there’s a catch: Hauk has Snake fitted with a tracker in his neck that will also explode after 24 hours, killing him. This is insurance against Snake taking off somewhere else. So now the stage is set; Snake has 24 hours to infiltrate, find the President and … Escape From New York!

Using a super silent glider, Snake infiltrates Manhattan and lands on top of one of the World Trade Center Towers. He finds the remains of the plane, as well as the President’s escape pod, but no President. Snake soon finds the wrist tracker that is supposed to lead him to the President, but it is in the possession of one of the inmates. Snake wanders a bit, trying to figure out what to do, his time ticking away. At one point, Snake runs into none other than a character played by Season Hubley, an actress with whom Russell had a child and brief marriage in the 1980s (a fascinating bit of history, I know). Snake is chased by ruffians of every kind and is aided by a cabbie named Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), who leads Snake to Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), the guy who is the Duke’s right hand man. Brain and Snake know each other from the real world and there is bad blood between them. Snake roughly convinces Brain, at gunpoint, and his babe Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) to take him to the President.

Brain, Maggie and Cabbie all go to the Duke’s hideout and Snake manages to procure the President. Snake and the Prez are nabbed once they exit, having been double crossed, it turns out for the second time in their history, by Brain. The Duke’s plan is to cross the mined 69th Street Bridge with Snake and the Prez in front. It is his hope that this will force the authorities to disarm the mines and prevent them all from being shot to pieces. Needless to say, Snake manages to escape and reacquire the Prez, who doesn’t seem to do much but cringe and look haughtily irritated at his felonious captors. Will Snake make it out in time to rescue both himself and the President?

While the story is full of fun stuff, the pacing of the film leaves much to be desired. There are a lot of overly long shots and sequences that seem to lack the tension inherent in the situation. Granted, they didn’t have a very large budget, something Carpenter mentions a few times during the commentary, but there is a lack of finesse in the production design and cinematography. “The Thing” was released the following year, reteaming Carpenter and Russell, and while that had an improved budget, the execution was just much crisper. The scene where Snake threatens to shoot Brain if he doesn’t help him is really forced and you can see the actors doing the worst thing imaginable: acting. Donald Pleasence is a fine actor but he is totally underutilized here. Russell’s performance is brilliant in its own campy way, from his rabid stare to his loud, low whispered speaking style. He sounds like a guy trying to sound tough, but it works. The idea for this movie is fantastic, but due to budgetary constraints and some overall goofy acting and pacing, it suffers. “Escape” has become a cult classic over the years, as happens with a lot of good stories that just don’t quite work for one reason or another.

Unfortunately, the audio commentaries were recorded in 1994, so while they have a lot of interesting information, they miss out on another 10 years of history and have nothing to say about the fact that Snake lands on the World Trade Center. It is interesting to think about the fact that Manhattan has become a prison, what with the terrorist attacks of 2001 and all of the attention that is paid to the security of the city since then. Carpenter and Russell have known each other for years and their friendship is apparent with the ease they both exude in discussing not only the film but each other’s role in it. It is here that we find out the film had a budget of $5 million and this brings some of the design elements into focus. Many of the interesting areas in the commentary revolve around the various ways they accomplished what they did on such a limited budget. For those who are unfamiliar with how movies are made, it is an interesting insight into just how much locations change within a scene, as various parts of scenes were shot in St. Louis, Los Angeles and New York, blended together seamlessly. Added to the commentary is the deleted first reel of the film, which shows an alternate beginning that was removed, according to Carpenter, because no one understood what the heck was going on. It’s another interesting lesson in how and why certain elements are shot, even entire scenes, and eventually left out of the final version.

This is a very crisp transfer, done in high definition, and while it looks good on a 43” monitor, it tends to date the film in an odd way. While the film isn’t faded or anything like that, the sharpness of the picture and the crispness of the new 5.1 channel audio mix call attention to the fact that the film had such a low budget. Some of the costumes and sets just don’t look very futuristic, even run down futuristic, and the pristine transfer just makes this all the more apparent. Somehow, watching it on an old TV with a grimy transfer gives a better feel to the story. Many of the sound effects are canned and sound amazingly awkward in surround. Listening to it simply on the TV doesn’t help much either, since there is no stereo mix on the DVD. This is clearly one of those cases where having an updated 5.1 channel mix actually hurts the film. Had they re-recorded the effects, that would have been another story.

Ultimately, “Escape From New York” will always be a film that made a statement about the state of the nation in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, while introducing both a fantastic cinema character in Snake Plissken and really establishing Kurt Russell as a leading man. While the film is dated in many ways, it still has enough going for it so that we might be willing to forgive it some of its inadequacies. This two-disc box set is nicely put together and will no doubt be a big seller to those who already hold “Escape” in high regard. As has been noted before, it is a cult classic.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, French Mono.
aspect ratio(s):
2.35:1 Enhanced 16x9 for Widescreen TVs.
special features: Teaser Trailers and Theatrical Trailer, Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Audio Commentary with Producer Debra Hill and Production Designer Joe Alves, Deleted Scene with Commentary, Return to Escape From New York Featurette, Liner Notes, “Making of John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles” Gallery, Comic Book, English, French and Spanish Subtitles.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Panasonic DVD-XP50
receiver: Denon AVR-3802
main speakers: Polk RT 600i
center speaker: Polk CS 400i
rear speakers: Polk S4
monitor: 43” Sony KP-43HT20

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