RETRO REVIEW: “Escape from New York” (1981)

For years now John Carpenter’s 1981 sci-fi action classic “Escape from New York” has tickled me by being set in the “near-future dystopia of 1997”. Here we are in 2023 and it’s still amusing to look back on movies that were looking forward towards the future. But in a lot of cases, a closer examination of the movies and their inspirations gives you a better sense of where they are coming from. For example, “Escape from New York” was written in 1976 and had its roots in the nation’s cynicism following the Nixon Watergate scandal. In other words, these films often had more on their minds than just genre treatment.

At the time, Kurt Russell was best known for his roles in Disney comedies such as “The Strongest Man in the World”, “Charlie and the Angel”, and “The Barefoot Executive”. To try and break from that mold he starred in the made-for-television movie “The Deadly Tower” and Robert Zemeckis’ black comedy “Used Cars”. But it was “Escape from New York” that did it for him. The very next year he reteamed with Carpenter in “The Thing”. The next year it was “Silkwood”. The next year it was “Swing Shift”. The next year it was “The Mean Season”. And the next year it was “Big Trouble in Little China”. Kurt Russell was on his way.

While the film’s backers wanted Charles Bronson to play the iconic anti-hero role of Snake Plissken, Carpenter insisted on Russell who put in a lot of effort to get into the character. As for the location, shooting in East St. Louis proved cheaper than New York City. Transforming a New York neighborhood into the run-down, decaying urban wasteland the film required was too pricey for the minuscule budget. So they shot a big portion in East St. Louis which had entire blocks of dilapidated buildings left vacant after a huge fire years earlier. Other memorable scenes were shot at St. Louis’ Union Station and on Liberty Island.

Carpenter co-wrote the story with Nick Castle who’s known best as playing Michael Myers in the original “Halloween” film. The movie is set in 1997, nearly ten years into a devastating war between the United States and the allied Chinese and Soviets. As a result, the nation’s economy has plummeted and crime has risen 400% which has led the US government to convert the ravaged Manhattan Island into the country’s lone maximum security prison. A 50-foot wall is built around the island, bridges are sealed off and mined, and heavily armed helicopters patrol the surrounding waters.

While flying to a crucial peace summit in Hartford, Connecticut, Air Force One is hijacked by a domestic terrorist/guerrilla fighter (played by another “Halloween” alum, Nancy Stephens). Unable to take back control of the plane, Secret Service agents rush President John Harker (Donald Pleasence – yep, another “Halloween” fixture) to an escape pod and jettison it over Manhattan just as the plane crashes to the ground. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (the ever great Lee Van Cleef ) dispatches a rescue team to retrieve the President, but they learn he’s been abducted by a powerful gang leader named Duke (Isaac Hayes).

With his team forced to withdraw, Hauk calls on the growling, eye-patched Snake Plissken, a decorated former Special Forces soldier recently convicted of robbing the Federal Reserve. Snake has been sentenced to a life term on Manhattan Island, but Hauk offers him a deal. Sneak in, rescue the President, and bring him out alive within 24 hours and he’ll be given a full pardon. Without much choice, Snake reluctantly accepts.

The bulk of the story takes place within the ruins of Manhattan as Snake encounters an assortment of threats including the deranged and starving “crazies” and of course Duke and his violent gang of miscreants. But he also finds some unexpected allies played by a fun assortment of names. There’s a cheery taxi driver fittingly called “Cabbie” played by Ernest Borgnine. And a wormy old acquaintance named “Brain” played by Harry Dean Stanton along with his main squeeze Maggie who’s played by Adrienne Barbeau.

While rewatching “Escape from New York” I was reminded that, despite it’s reputation, it’s not the all-out action movie that you might think. It’s a genre exercise no doubt, and it still has a certain B-movie grindhouse appeal. But this tried-and-true favorite is more than a buffet of blood and bullets. And it has the restraint and focus to avoid being tagged as trashy exploitation. Instead, Carpenter created something that I’m sure even he didn’t expect. From Kurt Russell immortalizing the lead character to the comic books, action figures, and board games that followed, “Escape from New York” still excites its fans and has earned its status as a time-tested cult classic.


14 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “Escape from New York” (1981)

  1. It’s a good’n I’ve seen many times but not for some time now. Great cast. Kurt was perfect for the role. IIRC didn’t he have some kind of device put on him that would kill him if he didn’t get out in exactly so much time? Where did “Overboard” fit into his filmography? I do remember Russell in at least a few Disney movies when he was younger.

    • That’s exactly right. I had a device on him that ensured he would stick to his mission. Overboard was actually the very next year in 1987. Now that’s a movie I haven’t seen in a while.

      • Overboard is another one I’ve seen a lot of times. I think it was on a premium channel I had way back when. Always kept me laughing.

  2. This film is a fucking masterpiece. Kurt Russell is perfect as Snake Plissken as I can’t see anyone else play that role. You’re forgetting that the Carpenter-Russell collaboration really began with the 1979 ElvisTV movie that was directed by Carpenter and starring Russell as I still think it’s the definitive film on Elvis to date. Plus, Russell had an advantage when it comes to playing THE KING since he worked with THE KING at It Happened at the World’s Fair in the 1960s as it was Russell’s first role as he played a kid whom Elvis paid a quarter to kick him in the shins to meet a nurse.

    I fucking love Russell’s story about Elvis as it’s on YouTube.

  3. I loved reading this! Thank you! I still enjoy this movie and back then it was just awesome. It is hilarious how 1997 has come and gone (and gone and gone). Was great to see Used Cars mentioned, what a memory that one is. To this day when my wife gives a quote and the prospective client says it is too much, I yell “that is too $&?@ high! Boom!”

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