Escape from New York is one of John Carpenter‘S best movies…even if there isn’t very good action. It’s got a fantastic premise, an outstanding cast, great cinematography, a killer Carpenter synth soundtrack (no surprises), and one of the coolest and most iconic heroes in the genre: Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). For all of these reasons Flee is considered one of the most defining films of its genre, but if you found a problem with this ’80s classic, it would probably be the action. Admittedly, the film was made before the genre evolved into its cutting-edge version of today, but its biggest critic remains clear.
Escape from New York is both dirty and slick
You probably already know this, but in case you missed it, Escape from New York is a 1981 dystopian action film directed by the great John Carpenter. It’s 1997 and Manhattan Island has been turned into a maximum security prison. The President flies over the island (Donald Pleasence), whose plane crashes, resulting in his kidnapping and the government desperately needs someone to rescue him. Enter Snake Plissken, the eyepatch-wearing ex-soldier who has 24 hours to save the President… or the government-placed micro-explosives down his throat will detonate. Now, Snake must make his way through crumbling New York City while dodging criminals and a crime boss, the Duke (Isaac Hayes), at every turn.
Like many other Carpenter films Escape from New York is more of a vibe piece than anything else. Carpenter can sometimes engage his viewers with stories that take themselves a little more seriously than they should. Either that, or they have half-baked ideas that could have used a little more specificity. Some people like to argue that Flee falls into the former camp. An eye-patched ex-soldier tasked with rescuing the President from street gangs in prison-turned New York City? Sounds a bit too silly, right? Incorrect. Had other artists been behind the scenes, this might be the case, but through the development of Carpenter’s original storyline with its signature one-liners, the formation of that stacked cast, another atmospheric score on Carpenter’s behalf, and Dean CundyThanks to the ultra-wide cinematography you have the perfect team to pull through Flee.
When entering Escape from New York, it’s best to start with the attitude that you’re here to hang out in this world. You’re there to roam the city streets and meet an eclectic cast of characters while being guided by the most over-the-top badass character ever. A warm synthesizer score will both haunt and excite you on your journey. Everyone you meet is bound to come up with a snarky, ridiculous remark or one-liner in response to anything you say, but that’s okay. Also, let’s not disregard the websites you come across. Flee is somehow dirty and slippery at the same time. Everything falls apart and endless hordes of zombie-like street thugs literally smash through the walls and floor, but the long, wet streets shimmer in the moonlight, and everything is viewed on a satisfying, sharp, mega-widescreen. It’s wonderfully disgusting to look at.
Where does the action go wrong?
Escape from New York has both the technical prowess and the perfect story tools to deliver the best action movie ever made… the only thing it lacks is great action. While there’s enchanting action, it’s not in the truly fantastic, thrilling, and thrilling kind that is absolutely necessary. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its ability to hold those long long shots while Snake saunters through the streets of New York or when we’re inside The Duke’s ornate cave. A wide-angle lens is even used as Snake sifts through a vast arsenal of weapons to choose what to use on his mission. With this, Carpenter sets a fantastic imagery for the more reserved moments of the film. The thing is, once the movie picks up speed and the guns start firing and the cars start chasing each other, it doesn’t change anything.
The fight scenes in Escape from New York fun but leave a lot to be desired. It’s not that they’re bad offensively, they’re just extremely lackluster. There is no sense of urgency. Like the film’s quieter moments, fights and gunfights are filmed in wide-angle with the camera mounted on a tripod. It works in places, like when Snake flies to New York City for the first time and lands on the roof of the World Trade Center, but overall it leaves you wanting more.
“Escape from New York” is still an achievement in this genre
That was before action filmmaking came along and was redefined by films like… Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, The TerminatorAnd Die Hard, but it was only made by a director who isn’t that good at action. You’d think the director of a film would be so violent and exciting the thing might be able to put these factors into action, but that’s just not the case. Years after action filmmaking was perfected as a science, Carpenter’s 2002 sci-fi action-horror mix mush is a real head-turner spirits of mars somehow manages to be even less exciting. (And that’s nicely put.)
Only because Escape from New YorkSince the action doesn’t boast wild stunts, impressive pyrotechnics, or groundbreaking cinematography, that doesn’t mean these scenes aren’t still a lot of fun. It’s still entertaining to watch Snake’s ridiculous fight in the wrestling ring or the chase scene in the finale (featuring the Duke’s Cadillac rocking two hood chandeliers). The film’s commitment to grounding its absurd world is enough to pull everyone in and keep you on your toes as you await the wild encounters Snake might have ahead. Once the fists fly and people get knocked out, you’ll likely settle back into your seat. At best, you’ll laugh at how little Carpenter relates to the action, and at worst, you’ll get bored. But remember: This is an action movie before the filmmakers figured out how to take full advantage of the genre.
Despite its reputation for not having the best action in the world, Escape from New York is still considered the pinnacle of its genre. While not entirely engaging, it had a major impact on future films with its emphasis on atmosphere and action hero archetype. If you’re walking into this movie expecting to be blown away, do yourself a favor and reset your expectations. Escape from New York gets by with just Carpenter’s vision for the world and Russell’s killer performance as Snake Plissken. It doesn’t matter how boring various aspects of your movie are, when John Carpenter and Kurt Russell star, you’re guaranteed a good time.