John Carpenter just might be the best filmmaker of the 1980s. With 1976's Assault on Precinct 13 (rating: 85), and 1978's Halloween, Carpenter began an astonishingly productive decade, establishing himself as perhaps the best thriller director and best horror director in Hollywood. The list of hits over the next 10 years is fairly remarkable: The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China (rating: 89), They Live (rating: 82), and, of course, 1981's Escape from New York.
His movies seem dated at first blush nowadays, with a pulsing synth-heavy score that Carpenter himself composed, and a relatively spare set design and editing palette. (They're also often comparatively low- to mid-budget.) His movies aren't overbusy environmentally, like Ridley Scott's, or verbally, like Quentin Tarantino's. And when they're not terrifying, they're often silly: Big Trouble in Little China is intentionally cheesy, and They Live cast the wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper to say things like, "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum." But funny or scary, they're remarkably effective.
Escape from New York has an unbeatable premise: in the near future, Manhattan has been turned into an island-wide maximum security prison. No one gets out. On the inside, it's everyone for him or herself. Terrorists kidnap the president and bring him deep inside the heart of New York. Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, a one-eyed badass former war hero with a gravelly monotone, is sent in to bring the president back alive. As in The Warriors, it's fun to see New York reimagined as a World War III crash zone, and Carpenter's unwavering sense of pace keeps things moving. A bizarrely effective cast surrounds Russell with Lee van Cleef as the sinister prison administrator, Ernest Borgnine as a friendly imprisoned cabdriver, Harry Dean Stanton as a shifty potential ally, and Isaac Hayes as the kingpin.
Perhaps due to its $6 million budget, the cast is ultimately more memorable than the set designs, however. Other than a setpiece set on top of the World Trade Center, where Snake is forced to land, the movie's New York rarely feels like New York. While the characters mention locations like Broadway by name, they rarely are recognizable as such. More recognizable are non-geographic locations, like a Chock Full O' Nuts where a woman tries to seduce Snake, or a theater where Russell is shocked to find a brightly dressed singing and dancing revue. Nearly the whole movie takes place at night, and the brightest thing onscreen is usually the eerie luminescence of the street.
Still, it was made in 1981, before the Schwarzenegger-era action-movie cliches had time to set in, and its script is refreshingly free of wannabe catchphrases. Glowering pauses substitute for a lot of pointless dialogue, which is just as well. (Big Trouble in Little China, made in 1986, is much talkier, and also much more quotable. Fortunately, it's also hilarious.) With his muscular charisma, Kurt Russell shows why he was one of the top action stars in the business -- as we saw most recently in Grindhouse's Death Proof (rating: 66). Escape from New York shows Russell and Carpenter near the height of their powers. It's certainly an interesting document of its era, as a part of the evolution of action movies from the independent era of the 1970's to the controlled blockbusters of the '80s and '90s. But mostly it's just a great action movie.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.