Escape from New York is one of John Carpenter‘s best movies…even though it doesn’t have very good action. It has a fantastic premise, stellar cast, great cinematography, a killer Carpenter synth score (no surprises), and one of the coolest and most iconic heroes in the genre: Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). For all of these reasons, Escape stands tall as one of its genre’s defining movies, but if you were to find one issue with this ’80s classic, the action would likely be it. Granted, the film was made before the genre would be shaped into the high-octane version of itself that it is today, but its greatest detractor remains clear.
‘Escape from New York’ Is Both Grimy and Slick
You probably already know, but in case it has managed to slip by you, Escape from New York is a 1981 dystopian action film directed by the great John Carpenter. It’s the year 1997, and Manhattan Island has been turned into a maximum security prison. Flying over the Island is the President (Donald Pleasence), whose plane crashes, leading to his kidnapping and the government in desperate need of someone to save him. Enter Snake Plissken, the eyepatch-wearing ex-soldier who is given 24 hours to save the President… or the government-placed micro-explosives in his neck will explode. Now, Snake has to navigate his way through a crumbling New York City, dodging criminals and a crime lord, The Duke (Isaac Hayes), at every turn.
Like many other Carpenter movies, Escape from New York is more of a vibe piece than anything. Carpenter can sometimes come at his viewers with stories that take themselves a bit more seriously than they should. Eith that or they have half-baked ideas that could’ve used a bit more fleshing out. Some people might argue that Escape falls into the former camp. An eyepatch-wearing ex-soldier that has to save the President from street gangs in a prison-converted New York City? Sounds a bit too silly, right? Wrong. Had any other artists been behind the scenes, this might be the case, but by developing Carpenter’s original logline with his signature one-liners, forming this stacked cast, another atmospheric score to Carpenter’s name, and Dean Cundy‘s ultra-wide cinematography, you’ve got the perfect team to pull off Escape.
When going into Escape from New York, it’s best to go in with the mindset that you’re here to hang out in this world. You’re there to walk the city’s streets and meet an eclectic cast of characters, all while being guided by the most over-the-top badass character ever conceived. A warm synth score will both haunt you and excite you in your journey. Everyone you meet is bound to return some sort of quick-witted, ridiculous remark or one-liner in reply to anything that you say, but that’s okay. Let’s not overlook the sites you’ll come across, either. Escape is somehow simultaneously grimy and slick all in one. Everything is falling apart and endless droves of zombie-like street thugs are literally coming through the walls and floor, but the long, wet streets shimmer in the moonlight, and everything is viewed through satisfying, sharp, mega widescreen. It’s gorgeously disgusting to look at.
Where Does the Action Go Wrong?
Escape from New York has both the technical prowess and perfect story devices to deliver what should be the greatest action movie ever made… the only thing it’s missing is great action. It has charming action, but not the truly fantastic, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat kind that’s essential. One of the movie’s greatest strengths is its ability to hold these long wide shots while Snake strolls through the streets of New York, or when we’re in the decked-out den of The Duke. A wide lens is even used when Snake’s looking over a massive arsenal of weapons to pick and choose what he’ll use on his mission. In doing so, Carpenter sets a fantastic visual language for the film’s more reserved moments. The thing is, once the movie picks up, guns start firing, and cars start chasing each other, he doesn’t change anything.
The fight scenes in Escape from New York are fun, but they leave much to be desired. It’s not that they’re offensively bad, they’re just severely lackluster. There’s no sense of urgency to be found. Like the film’s quieter moments, brawls and shootouts are filmed wide, with the camera locked down on a tripod. This works at a few points, like when Snake first flies into New York City and lands on top of the World Trade Center, but by and large, it’ll leave you wanting more.
‘Escape from New York’ Is Still an Achievement in the Genre
This was before action filmmaking took off and was redefined by movies like Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, The Terminator, and Die Hard, but was also just made by a director who doesn’t really do action all that well. You would think that the director of a movie as violent and thrilling as The Thing might be able to translate these factors into action, but it just isn’t the case. Even years after action filmmaking had been perfected down to a science, Carpenter’s 2002 sci-fi action horror mix mash Ghosts of Mars somehow manages to be even less thrilling. (And that’s putting things nicely.)
Just because Escape from New York‘s action doesn’t have wild stunts, impressive pyrotechnics, or groundbreaking cinematography to boast, doesn’t mean that these scenes aren’t still a lot of fun. It’s still entertaining watching Snake’s ridiculous fight in the wrestling ring, or the finale’s car chase (with The Duke’s Cadillac that rocks two chandeliers on its hood). The movie’s commitment to grounding its absurd world is enough to get anyone on board and hold you on the edge of your seat, waiting for what wild encounters Snake might have ahead of him. Once fists start flying and people start getting taken down, you’ll probably find yourself sitting back in your seat. At the very best, you’ll be laughing at how little Carpenter does with the action, and at worst, you’ll be bored. But remember: this is an action movie before filmmakers figured out how to work this genre to its fullest degree.
Despite its reputation for not having the greatest action in the world, Escape from New York still stands as a pinnacle achievement in its genre. While it isn’t entirely riveting, it was hugely influential on future films with its emphasis on atmosphere and action hero archetype. If you’re going into this movie expecting to be blown away, do yourself a favor and reset your expectations. Escape from New York gets by purely on Carpenter’s vision for the world and Russell’s killer performance as Snake Plissken. It doesn’t matter how lame various aspects of your movie are, if you have John Carpenter and Kurt Russell running the show, you’re guaranteed a good time.