Escape from New York (1981) starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton directed by John Carpenter Movie Review

Escape from New York (1981)   3/53/53/53/53/5

Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York

A Snake in New York

There is no denying that John Carpenter has given us movies which have helped to define genres no more so than "Halloween". But he has also given us movies which in comparison feel inferior which is the case of "Escape from New York". The annoying thing is that "Escape from New York" is a great idea for a movie full of action, drama and suspense yet those elements end up wasted as it never commits to any of them, floating around giving a bit of drama, a bit of action, a bit of suspense even a bit of humour.

It's the year 1997 and Manhattan Island is now a maximum security prison, except the only guards are on the outside making sure no one escapes, on the inside the prisoners do what they like. When the President's plane is taken over by revolutionary terrorists they crash it into the island with the President surviving thanks to his escape pod. With less than 24 hours to rescue the President before he is due to make an important announcement the authorities are forced to turn to Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell - Poseidon) who is due to be thrown into the prison. If he can find the President and lead him to safety he will receive a full pardon for his crimes, but if he fails he will die.

Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie in Escape from New York

Even though the storyline is seriously contrived I really like the whole idea that Manhattan Island is one big prison run by the prisoners who govern themselves. There is some cleverness and imagination to this with nice touches such as Liberty Island being the security centre and that those about to be entombed on the Island have the option of being terminated and cremated instead of cast into the prison hell. It's that imaginative side, that sort of look into the future which really captures your attention without feeling completely far fetched.

But whilst the idea is good and having the President stuck on the Island held captive by the dominant Duke, head prisoner who controls things, is equally good, if a little contrived in the way he happens to be there, it all ends up being wasted. Everything starts to become a bit formulaic as we watch Snake make his way on the island to rescue the President. We get action, drama; even a couple of frights but it never really masters any of them. The action is delivered in short less than spectacular bursts, the drama ends up as filler in between and whilst there are some classic techniques to shock there is little suspense. You know Snake will find his man, save the day and also himself.

All of which is a shame as those under worked action scenes have the capability to be something truly brilliant, full of excitement and power. The drama is there, the encounters with various people such as Police Commissioner Hauk and The Crazies make it interesting but it could be so much more and because of this lack of real drama the suspense never really fires in. Basically it's all good but stops short of really getting you to the edge of your seat and commanding your attention and that is disappointing.

But despite feeling lacking in these important departments "Escape from New York" stills remains entertaining much of which is down to the characters and actors. Kurt Russell delivered a great performance as Snake Plissken, making him mean, moody, rebellious but also an action hero one who would become iconic. But Russell is not alone and Lee Van Cleef is equally mean as Hauk, tricking Snake into the dangerous mission and at the same time giving us that icy Van Cleef stare. Then there is Ernest Borgnine who adds a touch of humour as Cabbie as does Harry Dean Stanton as Brain. But my favourite is Donald Pleasance who being a Brit adds a bit of irony as the President of the states.

What this all boils down to is that "Escape from New York" is by no means a bad movie just one which has all the elements and potential for being great. The storyline is wonderfully clever and imaginative and the varied characters makes it all very interesting but the action, drama and suspense never really kicks in to really demand your attention fully and suffers from not really concentrating on being one things or another.