MGM // 1981 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // December 4th, 2000
I heard you were dead.
John Carpenter's 1981 cult classic finally arrives on DVD courtesy of MGM. The disc boasts a strong anamorphic transfer but disappoints with, at best, an average Dolby 2.0 Surround mix. Adding insult to injury, Escape From New York is the barest of all possible releases, lacking even the infamous MGM collectible booklet.
The time is now and the year is 1997. We are a country at war and Manhattan has become a maximum-security prison, housing the worst and most violent of what society has to offer. Completely cut off, New York has been fenced in, all the bridges are mined and the waterways patrolled by helicopters with orders to shoot to kill. The only rule in New York is once you come in, you can never leave.
Giving proof that all perfect plans have a down side, a terrorist action has occurred on board Air Force One causing the President (Donald Pleasence) to jettison his way into the control of the self-proclaimed ruler of New York, The Duke (Isaac Hayes).
Thinking he has his key to freedom, the Duke is unaware that there is a time limit on what he can do with the President. On his way to a summit, The President was carrying a cassette tape that is vital to trying to achieve world peace. It is a summit that will commence in 24 hours, after which the life of the most important man in America will be virtually worthless.
With time running short and no available options the man who runs the prison, Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), makes a deal with the one man at his disposal who can get in and out of New York in time. That man is a former soldier turned criminal, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell).
To make the movie more interesting and in order to keep Plissken honest, Hauk has planted a pair of explosive devices in Snake's body. If not disabled in 22 hours, Plissken will be killed instantly.
So with the clock running for the world as well as himself, this unwilling hero must make his way through the most dangerous city in world, beat the odds and find a way to escape from New York.
Looking back, one of the most fruitful of creative partnerships of the last 20 years or so in film is that of Director John Carpenter (Dark Star, They Live) and Actor Kurt Russell (Soldier, Stargate ).
From the start of their cinematic relationship with the 1979 television biography, Elvis to their masterpiece together, the nihilist classic, The Thing, the two have found a way to draw out the best of what the other has to offer. Here in Escape From New York they were working on a larger scale for the first time and in the process, manage to create one of the screen's greatest anti-heroes, Snake Plissken.
Part Clint Eastwood and part John Wayne, Plissken is the ultimate pissed off soldier with a heart of, if not gold, then copper. Everything about Russell as Plissken is cool. The way he is dressed, the eye patch, the tattoos, to the matter-of-fact way he handles his business, Plissken is about as badass onscreen as anyone has ever been. Yet through it all Russell gives Plissken a sense of intelligence as well as a wry sense of black humor. Its a difficult role but Russell has the star power and the skill to pull it off.
Also underneath that wry black humor is a sense of cynicism that also courses through the entire film. If you look at Carpenter's career as a whole its easy to see that he is not the sunniest of people but rarely has there been such an oppressive tone in his films, with the exception of the totally dark The Thing. I don't know if it was where his and CO-screenwriter Nick Castle's heads were at the time or if the movie was a shot fired at the staged heroism of the early Reagan years but what he ended up making is, for my money anyway, the first depressing super hero movie. In Plissken's eyes, all the heroes really are dead and he would rather see the whole damn world blow itself to bits rather than sell his soul one more time.
It is also this black humor and cynicism that makes Escape From New York a cut above most sci-fi/action movie fare. This may be a "B" movie but it is a "B" movie with style, brains and attitude to burn.
On the production end it is easy to admire the cool, beautiful compositions of Cinematographer Dean Cundey (Apollo 13, Jurassic Park) and the economical, yet logical production design of Joe Alves (Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind). Cundey is someone whose work I can either take or leave but here his style just plain works. The blacks, blues and greens with which he shot this hell on earth just makes visual sense and in many ways the lighting becomes a character in its own right and helps to carry the action along.
Is Escape From New York an older film? Very much yes but while the special effects may be dated and cheesy looking in some spots, I was rather amazed at how well a great deal of the movie held up. It will never be confused with some of today's CGI-infused action epics but every penny spent on Escape From New York is visible on the screen and this movie has something many of today's films simply don't have, heart.
Its hard to write about a John Carpenter film and not talk about his music. While to call his musical ability limited is an insult to people who do only one thing really well, when the project is right, Carpenter's musical palette can be a major asset. Well, the project was right here and Carpenter's repetitive synthesizer works like a charm, building tension and adding to the texture of the movie.
Being a self-admitted film geek I often wonder what goes into the casting of a movie and I always have a curious reaction when I look at a movie poster and see who is in what. Part of the pleasure in Escape From New York is from looking at who is running around the movie. Besides the already mentioned Kurt Russell, there is Carpenter regular Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice), overacting to high heaven as The President of the United States and one of the great screen villains, Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), turning in solid work as the prison warden Bob Hauk.
Its also hard not to like a movie that has the former Mrs. John Carpenter, Adrienne Barbeau (Creepshow, Cannonball Run), flashing as much cleavage as possible in the same frame as one of my favorite actors, Harry Dean Stanton (Repo Man, Two-lane Backdrop) as the conniving Brain. Brain spends the entire film trying to figure out ways to screw over both Plissken and the bigger-than-life Duke played by South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut's Chef himself, Isaac Hayes and as always Stanton is a joy to behold. Throw into the mix Ernest Borgnine (The Black Hole, The Wild Bunch) as the doomed Cabbie and there is a serious mix of acting styles flying across the screen. It may all not come together but it sure is fun to watch.
There has been a lot of talk on the web lately about MGM's new commitment to the DVD format. Based on Escape From New York I would say they have quite a way left to go.
Things start out well enough. In fact the anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves Carpenter's preferred shooting ratio of 2.35:1 is the biggest surprise of the disc.
While the image is a little soft in spots and does throw off a certain degree of film grain it is hard to ignore all the detail that comes through. Colors are natural, possessing good contrast while flesh tones come through looking warm and life like. Black level and shadow clarity is of the utmost importance here and MGM does not let the movie down. The image remains rock solid with no shimmer or pixel breakup to be found and there is great depth in the film's numerous dark sequences.
Not to make apologies for the shortcomings of the image but, as mentioned, this was a low budget movie, so certain problems and deficiencies were bound to creep up. However make no mistake, this is probably the best Escape From New York has looked since the days of its original release.
If the image was a welcome surprise, I cannot help but feel let down by the sound. Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, the mix is clean enough and features very little in the way of either drop-off or background hiss but I was left wanting something much more engaging than what I got. Would it really have been so hard to go back and re-master the sound to take advantage of today's excellent 5.1 mixes? I was dying to hear this movie surround and envelop me, to take me in and allow me to hear everything in a new light. Sadly it was not to be.
As I said, what is heard is acceptable enough. Dialogue, special effects and Carpenter's music are mixed well enough and are clearly heard. I'm sure it is a mix the film purist will be happy with but I just would have liked to had the option of choosing.
I'll try and make this short and sweet but if ever there was one of those movies that cried out for special edition treatment, well its Escape From New York.
Its not like we are talking about a Woody Allen or a David Lynch style filmmaker here. John Carpenter has been very willing to give home video releases of his movies both his time and attention, with him participating in both documentaries and commentary tracks on numerous occasions.
I was sitting there watching Escape From New York and there were about a dozen times I found myself wishing there was a Carpenter/Russell commentary to access. Its just too bad that in a year that we have seen deluxe treatment go out to so many movies, several of which a lot of people have never heard of, that MGM gives Escape From New York such short drift.
It is my understanding that there was a laser disc that had several special features on it, including deleted scenes. Would it really have killed MGM to hold back release of this disc and gotten the rights to these materials, or produced new content on their own?
I will admit that reading about MGM's plans to release over 300 discs in 2001 scares the hell out of me. How do they really plan to give all these movies the attention they deserve? It is almost as if class distinctions were being drawn in the DVD world. To use an automotive analogy, its like, say Fox or Criterion is becoming the Jaguar of the DVD world while MGM seems content to be the Hugo. Granted these discs are priced to sell at $14.99 in many retail venues but I would rather wait a little longer, as well as spend a little more and get a better, more complete product. Its just me and your mileage may of course vary.
As a movie, is Escape From New York perfect? Nope but it is a lot of fun and has held up remarkably well for a 20 year old sci-fi/action flick. So there you have it, there it is.
Depending on how much you like this movie and how much you think your hard earned cash is worth should be the criteria for which you decide on a purchase of Escape From New York.
The movie is still a good thrill ride through the dark side of a future that might have been and it certainly beats the crap out of the sequel, Escape >From LA. Kurt Russell turns in solid work in the lead and Carpenter movies are always interesting to watch.
Still I'm of rather mixed feelings on this release. To its credit the movie looks great but everything else about it just feels so average. Also, bearing in mind that there have been no rumblings of a second, better edition, this is the best this movie is going to be for quite a while.
My recommendation is no recommendation. All things being equal, give it rental first and go from there.
John Carpenter and Kurt Russell are acquitted of all charges and ordered to get together on another project sometime soon.
MGM is ordered to look at the way it is planning on releasing its library of films and to take the time and give these movies the treatment most DVD fans both expect and want.
This judgment is based on the disc at hand but if this judge hears of a newer, more feature laden release coming down the pike there will be hell to pay from the bench.
That is all I have. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R