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EMPIRE ESSAY: Escape From New York Review

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A condemned criminal and former war hero is offered his freedom if he can rescue the President of the United States from the walled prison island of Manhattan after a terrorist brings down the President's plane in this futuristic adventure.

★★★★

Far-fetched if not plain daft, there is still something enjoyably cinematic in the idea of Manhattan as a walled-in maximum security prison where the criminals swill around in their own skewed version of society. According to the screen captions the barricade went up in 1988, the events of the film occur in 1997. But if prophecy isn't Carpenter's strong suit, his concept, execution and lead character make for a fascinating acid-fairy tale.

Carpenter's ruined Manhattan is a grim, grungy netherworld. Utilising primitive matte and modelwork to construct desolate versions of the real thing, the fragged cityscape is brought to sullen life. A bleak, nightmarish vision of the future with its own class strata, it's pertinent to note that it was created at least a year before Blade Runner. Into this Darwinist hell hole tumbles the US President (Pleasance) in his Airforce One escape pod, clutching a tape of an address which will stave off an imminent world war with the USSR (this is pre-Glasnost moviemaking). To get him, and the tape, out, the ultimate self-preservationist is required. Enter Snake Plissken, ex-soldier turned bank robber turned social reprobate and ultracool sourpuss.

Russell as Plissken is magnificent. Long before the meaty actor's credibility was undone by a parade of indifferent action roles and bad romcoms with Goldie, he embodied the superantihero (next he applied his infallible resourcefulness to The Thing) instilling a sense of can-do physicality and sneery indifference into everything he did (significantly, Tommy Lee Jones was the preferred choice). The voice raspy and laconic, Plissken's slowburning style stems directly from Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood's legendary Man With No Name and is echoed in any number of subsequent loner-arsehole-heroes (Mad Max, Waterworld's Mariner et al).

Casting Lee Van Cleef as the duplicitous Hauk simply underlines the reference. Plissken, though, is more preoccupied, less loosely mercenary than Eastwood's ponchoed outsider. Mainly because he's got an explosive implant in his neck with 24 hours on the clock, a superbly direct dramatic device to give the film a real urgency.

Fuelled by a dark strain of irony, this is far less an action movie than you might expect. Drawn-out sequences, absorbing all of production designer Joe Alves' gritty realism and Carpenter's effective but dated plinky-plonky synth score, are only intermittently punctuated by bursts of Snake's indomitable machismo and fairly mediocre gunplay (revealing budget limitations). Instead, Carpenter has created a kind of apocalyptic character piece-cum-black comedy. And beyond Plissken, Borgnine as NY cabbie Cabbie, Isaac Hayes as badguy Duke, Harry Dean Stanton's Brain and Van Cleef's snidey Hauk make big comic book impressions.

This is a product of post-Vietnam/Watergate America, a world of political distrust and widespread anti-establishment fervour — the hero serves no one but himself, yet we're still invited to admire him, simply for his capability if nothing else. New York (a micrcosm of America) is a desolate, moral wasteland where only the fittest and cruellest survive. Putting the boot in on the American Dream is a theme inherent in many of Carpenter's movies. The director preceeded EFNY with another excellent tale of civil unrest Assault On Precinct 13. And it's notable that the poor, Escape From LA, manages none of this cold cynicism, born as it is out of a less caustic — less relevant? — decade.

As dystopian visions go, John Carpenter's take on turn-of-the-century New York is the most fun.