[Cinema Sunday] “Escape From New York”

“Call me ‘Snake’.” – Snake Plissken

With every science-fiction movie that comes out over the years, there are many kinds of heroes. There are heroes like Buckaroo Banzai, who are the sort of stand-up figure anyone can latch onto. There is also Han Solo, who is roguish but likable. And then there is Snake Plissken. A figure who is neither good nor bad, but simply looks out for only one person, himself.

Escape From New York, a film that looms large in the genre of science-fiction, mainly because (to this reviewer) there isn’t a whole lot of science-fiction within this movie. There are technological advances to be sure, but it feels and plays out more like an action/sci-fi work.

Nevertheless, it is a fabulous piece of 80s cinematography. And it was brought to life from the great genius of a man who has delivered so much to movies across multiple genres…the one and only, John Carpenter.

John Carpenter (center) gives direction to Season Hubley (left) and Kurt Russell (right)

Carpenter’s inspiration for this project goes back 5 years to the Watergate scandal. In an interview with The New York Times during the initial release, he stated the development came about from, “The whole feeling of the nation was one of real cynicism about the President. I wrote the screenplay and no studio wanted to make it because it was too violent, too scary, too weird.” Part of the script’s crazy humor came from college friend Nick Castle, who developed the ending and created the character of Cabbie (played by Ernest Borgnine).

For casting, financial backer AVCO Embassy Pictures had their eyes on either Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones for the role of Snake. Carpenter’s pick of Kurt Russell won out in the end, who used the hard-as-nails character of Snake to deal with the soft image he had developed from being in several Disney comedies.

Kurt Russell really makes the character of Snake come alive. While he often-times has a very serious poker face on, subtle character twitches convey just as much emotion and expression. Whether it’s Snake posture, what he is doing with his hands, or how he moves across a scene, each tell stories and add to the character mythos of Snake Plissken.

Villains-wise, Escape from New York gets not one, but two bad guys. Lee Van Cleef as United States Police Commissioner Hauk and Isaac Hayes as The Duke of New York City. One represents law, the other crime. But both are villains in their own right. Hauk because he essentially puts a loaded gun to Snake’s head to rescue the President, and then escalates the situation with the injection of micro-explosives that will kill him.

The Duke, on the other hand, represents the more prevalent threat. This is because much of the action takes place in New York Penitentiary. He has his thugs, his army to back him, as well as the drive and ambition to bust out of the prison and escape to freedom. A constant fear of being taken down by The Duke’s forces is there throughout the story, but like all good action films, it ends with his demise.

Many excellent special effects and production elements went into making this a movie that while is action-driven, has that sci-fi element to it. Not to mention finding suitable locations for filming what is supposed to be a derelict NYC. To that end, here is something special for all John Carpenter and Kurt Russell fans. Parts 1 and 2 of a documentary of the making of the movie.

 

Critics and reviewers heaped a variety of praise, both outright and mixed upon this 1981 feature and its director, cast, crews, and other elements. The most well-phrased and interesting of them, comes from The Hollywood Reporter.

Escape From New York is the kind of movie that calls for an immediate suspension of disbelief. One must credit Carpenter (and co-writer Nick Castle) for their ingenuity in devising the central situation; but that granted, the major credit would seem to go to Carpenter’s teams of special effects experts and stuntmen, to Joe Alves, his production designer, to Stephen Loomis, his costume designer, and to Brian Chin, for his brilliant miniatures. Together they have created an altogether convincing picture of New York’s grisly future — and all the more impressive for knowing that most of the exteriors were shot in St. Louis and Los Angeles.

Forecasts have called for foul weather all day. Perfect for staying indoors, propping one’s feet up, and relaxing with some good movies to pass the time. If anyone who enjoys reading these little throwback pieces has a love for John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, or just anything sci-fi or action, then Escape from New York is the movie for you.

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