Escape From New York (1981) dir. John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasance
1981 introduced to the film world two quintessential American film heroes – one well known, the other, not. They are Indiana Jones and Snake Pliskin. To compare them, if Indiana Jones is a good ol’ glass of beer, Snake Pliskin is a cheap shot of Tequila.
Snake is the hero of “Escape From New York,” one of the best b-movie/exploitations films of all time. Here’s the awesome high concept scenario: in the Dystopian near future, Air Force One is high-jacked and crashes on Manhattan Island. Except, in this future, Manhattan has been converted into a prison. A giant wall surrounds the island and the inhabitants/inmates are forced to fend for themselves without law or enforcement. Lee Van Cleef, who plays the warden of the prison recruits bad-ass convict Snake Pliskin (Kurt Russell) to infiltrate the island and rescue the President (Donald Pleasance). But Pliskin doesn’t have a choice, he’s been implanted with a tiny bomb in his brain which will explode in 24 hours. Therefore he has to get the President or, he himself, dies.
Indeed, it’s so ridiculously far-fetched, but the film is so much fun you just play along with glee. Before the era of Tarantino, Carpenter was the first mainstream filmmaker to mix the b-movie genres - think a Spaghetti Western mashed with the Omega Man, Mad Max and the Warriors, with a splash of George Romero.
The dialogue and bad-ass characters sizzle. When Snake lands his glider (yep, a glider!) in Manhattan, he’s greeted by a gang of thieves who claim they have the President. To prove it, the envoy shows Pliskin the President’s chopped off finger with the Presidential ring still attached. No one flinches. A classic scene is the fight between Pliskin and an ogre in a makeshift boxing ring, where Pliskin kills his opponent with a spiked baseball bat to the head.
All the actors are having fun with their performances. Adrienne Barbeau flashes her assets proudly as Pliskin’s main squeeze, Mr. Exploitation himself, Isaac Hayes, steals scenes as the “Duke of New York”, and Ernest Borgnine giggles his way into a fine performance as Snake’s tour guide sidekick.
As with most of his films Carpenter created his usual deliciously mysterious electronic music score. Despite a very modest $7million budget, the special effects are effective- the lights-out Manhattan and the apocalyptic production design totally believable.
So have your shot of Tequila, there’s no disguising it, it tastes bad, but it’ll make you a helluva lot more fun. Enjoy.