Written by: John Carpenter & Nick Castle
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes
The classic saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” gets thrown out frequently because it applies in many cases where people who dislike each other team up. It occurs when common interests align even with the fiercest of enemies, and the advantage they hope to attain comes at the expense of someone else. A storytelling situation seen aplenty, but Escape from New York asks what would occur with this circumstance when literally every character is evil in their own way. With its grittiness and reluctance to ever find a moral character, this film utilizes its premise in an inventive and tremendously entertaining way.
Following years of crime surging, Manhattan has been shut off to be used as a large prison with large walls erected all around it. If a prisoner gets sent there, they never get brought back to society. After Air Force One gets hijacked and forces the President to be held hostage within the prison, the government turns to renegade criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to enter the city and bring back the president for the sake of the country.
The parameters set for this film could easily paint the government as the good guys with the prisoners being the villains and vice versa. By electing to paint everyone as bad guys in this nearly apocalyptic world, Escape from New York shows the decrepit immorality in mob rule and authoritarianism in a smart way along with the fun action it also introduces. Set in a future where the United States essentially exists as a police state, the idea of turning an entire city into a giant prison seems ghastly when thinking about how much crime must have occurred for this to take place. The film opens with the statistic of crime rising 400% but it smartly never asserts exactly what kind of crime encompasses this statistic. The government would like for you to believe these are all violent, but with the impunity in which they act, it’s important to question who gets thrown into New York and what specific crimes justify being sent there serving a life sentence.
Escape from New York never creates a character with a moral compass for the audience to follow because this world no longer becomes about doing the right thing, but rather what will assist in one’s survival. This gets seen through the actions of the government, the prisoners in Manhattan, and the protagonist Snake. He does not act with a moral code because it no longer exists in this world. He gets prompted to action whenever moving forward will assist him in either attaining freedom or evading death. One could argue this creates no one for the audience to attach themselves to, but John Carpenter seeks to throw us into this world to see who can gain the upper hand by the end as more gets revealed about the heinous acts of the individuals involved.
This premise works so well because it creates the fantasy many believe New York would have turned into for decades now. A wasteland of lawlessness completely engulfs the city as natural power-plays and hierarchies form, which always happens when humans start anything. Throwing in someone like Snake into the equation makes it all the more fun because we figure he’s most likely an adequate character without much backstory. This expertly gets communicated simply through the appearance of the character and the acting done by Kurt Russell. All throughout his time on screen, there’s an aura around Snake where we can guess he has accomplished some wild feats in life. His bravado induces fear or respect with everyone he comes across and Russell brings it all together with his stature. Working at his physical prime, Russell portrays this character as a “cool guy” renegade who just does what he wants, but he sells it so well because it explains how this character has made it so far in this dystopian future. He also really knows how to work the eyepatch.
Venturing into the city shows a variety of different characters making up the prisoners and while what they did to get sent to Manhattan never gets addressed, you can tell some were stowed away there for a wide range of supposed crimes. Sure, you have the ring leader, The Duke (Isaac Hayes), who definitely did some wild things when he patrolled the free world but then you also have Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) who simply worked as a taxi driver, as the name indicates. The production design seeks to create a wasteland and does just that in style to give the tattered city look. Around every street corner, a new threat could instantly appear, which constantly kept the tension high as Snake tried to navigate the space and find the president.
Following John Carpenter’s filmography is quite the ride seeing the different genres he enjoyed exploring. Most famously beloved for his horror works, his foray into the science-fiction game showed he had the capability to do it all. He has this ability to create gritty stories to the point where they still look professionally made. It feels so effortless at times how easily he can craft an intriguing premise and make it endlessly entertaining. Carpenter accomplishes this in spades and proves he can capture Kurt Russell on-screen better than anyone else.
Plenty of violence, political intrigue, and no real person to root for, Escape from New York never tries to redeem its characters and therefore creates a thrilling experience. A world full of bad guys and it becomes a race to see who suffers the least. Another tremendous Russell and Carpenter collaboration and one with plenty to enjoy thematically and narratively.