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My Favorite Movies #79: Escape from New York

March 28, 2015
Escape from New York poster

It is hard to overstate just how grimy, skeevy and unsavory Manhattan was in the 1970s and 1980s. A visitor to the Big Apple these days sees an utterly transformed metropolis, free of the myriad reminders of urban squalor and decay that characterized it not so long ago. But back then, the degradation of Manhattan was shocking to behold, and it was more than physical; it was spiritual. At least, it was for me. I lived about 90 minutes away from the City by car, and whenever I visited, I saw an environment that offered nothing but hostility and hopelessness. If people weren’t trying to take something from you, they were asking you to give it to them, all against a backdrop of discarded people, urban decay and filth that collectively suggested a city that had given up on itself.

This made quite the impression on my young mind, and it informed how I saw big cities in general for quite a long time. They were places were civilization went to die, hemmed in to confines too tight in which to survive, where humanity’s every negative impulse gets expressed, like infection from a wound that has nowhere to run, so it just gets all over everything.

So when John Carpenter’s Escape from New York came out, I was more than ready to take in this dystopian tale of a future America run by some kind of vague police state that has created what must be one of the most memorable high-security prisons in cinematic history. I never got to see it in the theatres, but when I finally got to watch it on cable, and on tape, I must have seen it a hundred times.

Here’s the deal: by 1988, the country’s crime rate has grown out of control, so the federal government decides to evacuate Manhattan, seals it off and dumps all hardened criminals inside. (Why not? In the future it’s just going to be a worse hellhole than it is already is, right?) The bridges and waterways are mined. The walls are too high to climb, and even if you could, there is an army of guards waiting to machinegun whoever comes over the top. Anybody sent in never comes out, and must fend for themselves in what has become a true concrete jungle.

Presumably, life in the rest of the United States must be pretty damned awful, because this solution seems to work, for the most part. (One gets the feeling that the movie doesn’t think Manhattan Prison is a good idea, just that under the right conditions, people will go along with any solution to their problems, no matter how outlandish they are. This, of course, is true.) The only thing that upsets this arrangement is when a terrorist hijacks Air Force One and crashes it into Manhattan just as the President is on his way to a critical summit with the Soviets and China. The superpowers have been at war for a long time now, and this summit is the last, best chance to end things on terms the U.S. might find acceptable. Nobody knows the President is missing. Who the hell is going to go into New York and get the guy out before the other side catches on? Snake Plissken. That’s who.

EFNY Montage 01Plissken is a former Special Forces commando who is so badass that he was probably born wearing his signature eyepatch. (Nick Fury has nothing, I repeat, nothing on Snake Plissken.) Alas, Plissken is also a born renegade who got caught trying to rob the Federal Reserve and has been sentenced to New York. The joke’s on the federal government, because Plissken is such a tough guy you know after three seconds of looking at him that he is definitely the first guy who would figure out how to bust free from the place. But NY Police Commissioner Hauk has other ideas. He pulls Plissken aside, gives him the lowdown on the missing President and offers him a deal: get the President—and his top secret briefcase—out in 24 hours we’ll overlook that little bank incident. Oh, and as added incentive, they jam some little micro-explosives in Plissken’s neck so that if his mission fails, he dies. That’s just so he doesn’t cut and run at the earliest opportunity. Snake is no angel, and Hauk is no dummy.

Pretty soon, we find Snake armed with the kind of arsenal that made sense to an early 1980s action movie fan—suppressed MAC-10, scoped .38 Special, throwing stars—and flying a glider onto the top of the World Trade Center, from which he is to make his literal descent into the heart of darkness. Once on the ground, Snake must contend with the perfect mash-up of societal disintegration as he searches for the President. It’s like the Warriors meets Mad Max in there, with the kind of cast that even now kind of boggles the mind. A young Kurt Russell plays Snake and instantly catapults to the upper echelon of all-time greatest movie tough guys. Ernest Borgnine plays a cabbie who you’re never quite sure what he could have done to merit permanent lockup, but the ease with which the guy can fling a Molotov cocktail suggests a few theories. Harry Dean Stanton—fully recovered from that nasty head wound he got in Alien—and Adrienne Barbeau—one of the great B-movie vixens of the 1980s—are a pair of criminal masterminds gaming the system within the prison. Isaac Hayes (yeah, that Isaac Hayes) is the Duke of New York, the warlord who has the President. Donald Pleasance is the president, and nails the role exactly as it ought to be for this kind of story. And Lee Van Cleef is Police Commissioner Hauk. Lee Van Cleef! That is how freaking awful the situation has gotten in this movie: the world’s biggest prison needs a guy like him to wrangle guys like Kurt Russell and Isaac Hayes. I get the vapors just thinking about it.

In writing a synopsis for this movie, it feels like I am describing a hundred other movies, and in a way, I am. The 80s were famous for movies about cities taken over by crime, and post-apocalyptic scenarios, and gung-ho commandos on a do-or-die mission. Escape from New York was one of the early ones that pretty much created a blueprint that other filmmakers riffed from for years. Hell, they’re still doing it now. (Don’t believe me? Go see Doomsday, which is as open a homage as it gets.)

This movie is a million kinds of awesome because despite the absurdity of the movie’s premise, it featured a kind of bare-knuckled action that is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. We can thank the director, John Carpenter, for that. Carpenter, for anybody out there who doesn’t know his work, is one of the great DIY filmmakers. He would do the soundtrack, he would write and direct, he would handle cinematography. He was famous for cranking out science fiction and horror movies that were so much better than the meager resources on hand with which to make them. But the kicker was that he took his craft seriously, even when he had every reason not to. He knew that he was never going to win an Academy Award for Escape from New York, but he didn’t care. He took an obvious pride in his work and tried to create the best possible movie with what he had, and it shows. This is important to note, because a few short years after Escape from New York came out, the home video market became an unstoppable juggernaut, and pretty soon, you had a million half-assed movie studios making a million half-assed movies to be rented out of every convenience store and video hut in America. Most of these movies were so grindhouse they made Roger Corman look like Steve Spielberg. And the more I watched them, the more I grew to appreciate just how great Escape from New York (and pretty much everything else Carpenter ever did) really is.

EFNY Montage 02Escape from New York was clearly done on the cheap, but there is a genuine passion throughout the whole thing that somehow, just works. (In fact, it almost seems like the less resources Carpenter has, the better his movies are. That certainly felt true with Escape’s sequel, Escape from LA, which was done many years later, with a much larger budget, and none of the staying power of its predecessor.) But the indie feel of it also conveys a sense that Carpenter had a lot of control over this movie. (I don’t know if that is the case, but the end product certainly feels so.) And to a young kid falling in love with science fiction and writing, there was something very powerful to all of that.

Movies are by nature collaborative. Hugely collaborative, in fact. And yet, there is such a strong Carpenter-ness throughout Escape from New York that as I got older, I began to like the movie not just for the story it presents, but for being an example of a storyteller who got to tell his story his way in a medium that strongly resists that. I don’t know what movie it was that made me realize I was a John Carpenter fan, but this was the movie that made me realize that I respected the hell out of the guy. I still do.

There are other reasons why I love Escape from New York, too. It touches on this weird love/hate relationship I have with New York, a place that attracts and repels me in equal measure. (Though the more I work in it, the more I understand why it is the greatest city in the world.) But when the movie came out, I was terrified of the place. Of all big cities, really, but of NYC in particular. Escape from New York knew that America was kind of freaked out that a city as grand as the Big Apple could have fallen to such a lowly state during the late 70s and early 80s. It was almost as if, in the backs of everybody’s minds, there was this fear that if New York, of all places, could screw it up so badly, what hope was there for the rest of the country? And, if things are this bad now, how bad might they get in a few years if nothing improves? A lot of the apocalyptic storytelling of the 80s focused on the aftermath of nuclear war, but Escape from New York’s nemesis was simply our own damned selves. That always scared me a lot more than some Soviet warhead that would erase me in the blink of an eye. The Soviets might someday not want to blow us up. But we will always live with the savage within us.

There is also a sense that there is 100 times more story here than the movie lets on. The science fiction author William Gibson, who wrote the cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, noted that he was inspired by this movie. In particular, Gibson was taken with a scene where Hauk is giving Snake his mission, and he notes that Snake could do it because “he flew the Gullfire over Leningrad,” a throwaway reference to Snake’s wartime exploits that is given no further explanation or context, and yet evokes a much bigger setting than the one immediately occupying the movie. Gibson loved that, and when you read Neuromancer (and a lot of his other works), he employs that tool a lot. I do, too. It is probably my favorite storytelling technique. I use it all the time, and I first saw it in this movie, which is a big reason why Escape from New York will always be a favorite of mine.

Escape from New York was also my first encounter with a genuine antihero. I don’t know if the 80s were the decade of the antihero, but they sure felt like it. When Frank Miller’s graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, came out and blew everybody away with its relentlessly bleak re-imagining of Batman, on the one hand it felt new and original. But on the other hand, it felt like the natural progression of a storytelling tradition that had been gathering steam in a big way for a number of years already. You really get the feeling that you could never have had Miller’s Batman without Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken. Plissken was this evolutionary jump from, say, Han Solo – a rogue who you knew could always be counted on to do the right thing when the chips are down. Plissken doesn’t do the right thing, ever. He just needs to save his own skin, man. And if that means saving the President of the U.S. of A, well then, alright. Plissken is the guy who won’t leave a friend behind, but that’s about the extent of his charity, and his final action in Escape from New York exhibits a kind of middle-finger-to-the-world attitude that I had never seen before. As a writer, I am not particularly taken with this kind of antihero, but it was huge for me to realize that you can have a good guy who isn’t exactly a good guy. That while not everybody can be a hero, a hero could be anybody. That’s something worth keeping in mind even outside of writing, I think.

EFNY Montage 03One final note: it always bugs me in science fiction when the movie imagines a near future that we have since surpassed. It shows a limit of the imagination that can happen to even the best of writers. With Escape from New York, we’re already almost 20 years past the events of that story, and obviously the United States looks nothing like it does in Carpenter’s vision, to say nothing of New York. Had you told Escape’s audiences at the time that by 1997, Times Square would be all lit up with neon and Disney Broadway plays, people would look at you like you had antlers growing from your head. But that’s what happened, and as such, Escape from New York maintains a weird kind of timelessness. It never quite feels like an inaccurate foretelling of the future, because the future it foretells is so extreme. Rather, the setting increasingly feels like an alternate reality that we should be thankful never came to pass. In that way, Escape from New York ages remarkably well, which is just one more reason to love the darn thing, despite its various shortcomings and flaws, none of which I feel like discussing here because…Snake Plissken.

Because…the Duke of New York.

Because…Donald Pleasance with a machinegun.

Because…spiked baseball bats and trashcan lids.

Because…old tapes of swing music.

Because…Adrienne Barbeau as the world’s sexiest roadblock.

Because…New York.

And that, my friends, is why I love Escape from New York.

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