Directed by John Carpenter
You get the feeling that the Manhattan depicted in Escape From New York never sees daylight, much like Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film After Hours or his 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. Like those films, this one takes place mostly at night and shows a grimy, rundown version of New York, though of course that environment is explained by the movie’s premise: After years of extreme crime rates, Manhattan has become one large Alcatraz-like prison, separated from the rest of the world.
In this large island prison, there are no rules and nobody to enforce those rules. There are, however, systems of power that have developed organically from within, as you typically see in apocalyptic movies where someone inevitably grabs power and forms some type of monarchy.
Escape From New York follows a grizzled protagonist named Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), who is a cross between Rambo, Dirty Harry and one of the Village People. If you want to use a more recent example, he’s much like John Wick.
Snake is dropped into Manhattan with instructions to save the President of the United States, who has been kidnapped after terrorists took down Air Force One. Snake is forced to cooperate with the authorities because they promise to grant him his freedom if he saves the President in less than 24 hours and they’ve also injected him with a chemical that will kill him unless disarmed in that same 24 hours.
Once inside the prison, everyone seems to know Snake, whether personally or by reputation. “I thought you were dead,” is the common refrain that we hear half a dozen times throughout the film.
We never know much about Snake or what he did to land in prison, and that’s for the benefit of the film. There is a brief voice over that opens the film in which we’re told that Manhattan is one giant prison because crime had gotten so bad in the 80s, and that’s all we need to know.
When Snake is sent into the prison, we don’t know yet what he will face and doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s exciting. The danger kind of works itself into the story, coming up from underground like one of the tribes within Manhattan that operates almost exclusively in old subway tunnels. We begin to learn more about the governing structure within Manhattan, but only as Snake learns where the President is and who’s got him.
The leader of the entire island is the Duke (Isaac Hayes), a guy who is just bad to be bad I suppose. The Duke and his governing style is probably the least interesting part of the film, but the story doesn’t spend too much time dissecting The Duke. All that matters is that he’s scary.
As Snake treks through the city, he finds himself on the run from a particularly aggressive gang, gunning down plenty of them as he flees. Then he meets Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) who helps him escape, and soon after he runs into Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), an old friend of some kind who knows the geography of the city extremely well (including where the real government has planted bombs) and who works for The Duke.
With the help of Brain and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), Snake finds the President, but almost right after they are caught. The Duke places Snake into a fight to the death with a much larger man. The crowd cheers on (a lot of this part of the story was used in The Dark Knight Rises), and really I couldn’t care less.
The point is, Snake has to operate under The Duke’s rules. He has to fight to the death, and it’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that he survives. The point of these scene is to illustrate how barbaric this way of life is within prison. It’s not that it’s the Wild Wild West in here, there are strict rules, but those rules embrace a more primal, violent, kill or be killed philosophy.
Ultimately Snake saves the President, with some much needed help from Brain and Maggie. As they escape across the bridge to the part of the barricade where the U.S. government waits to lift them to safety, Cabbie, Brain and Maggie are all killed. There is one final showdown between Snake and The Duke in which, surprise, the President shoots The Duke dead. He shoots him multiple times too, and this moment was hilarious and startling. The President is made out to be rather weak and maybe a little too plump from his cushy throne, and suddenly he too is Rambo.
Now, there are plenty of moments in which things happen a little too easily, helping get us to the next action scene. These moments are forgivable, I think, when the movie exists for the action. For example, when Snake is stuck in his fight to the death, Brain and Maggie lie to get their way into the room where the President is held. The guy they lie to (an extremely well-cast, slimy villain) lets them in and then immediately says they’re lying to him. Well why’d you let them in then? Brain and Maggie almost immediately kill the man and his cronies and rescue the President. It feels way too easy.
There are moments like that, plenty of them, but again I don’t suppose it’s that big of a deal. I actually kind of enjoy campy, pulpy movies like this. In Escape From New York, the details never seemed to matter. The point of the film, the message rather, is that this is an unsafe world in which no one can really be trusted, and that’s the part that fascinated me most.
We don’t know what life is like outside of the Manhattan prison. We meet the people who force Snake into saving the President, but we never see what ordinary life is like. Snake still wants his freedom, as do several people who try to escape, so it’s clear that the outside world is better or at least believed to be better. But it seems like that outside world must be at least a little tarnished if this society was driven to isolate goddamned Manhattan and make it its own prison. It’s like when you need to clean your room, and you end up stuffing everything inside the closet so that the door barely closes without bursting open.
Not showing the outside world was a nice touch. There are plenty of nice touches in this film. It’s lean, gets to the point, lets itself be campy (I mean, just look at Kurt Russell), and always has fun with the characters, the violence and the story. By refusing to try and make a broader point about our present day life (in 1981) and instead just showing this type of world, almost casually, I feel like John Carpenter is really saying something about the state of affairs in the U.S. He was compelled to make this film, from what I read, after the Watergate Scandal, so there is some good ‘ol 1970s disenchantment with the world seeping into this film.
But at the same time, Carpenter refuses to declare that this film is some kind of warning. It feels way more like a “what if” then a “just wait until…” scenario. He makes a movie and a world in which our heroes are bad, but we don’t know how bad. Snake is a necessary evil. Everything he does in this film is for the good of the people, but we don’t see those people, and we don’t know how ‘good’ the President is. Maybe this is an idea that our heroes, from this point on, have to be a little bad, like a good politician who isn’t the nicest person but they need that edge, that assholery to get things done.
Now, I don’t know for sure. Snake has a lot of Dirty Harry in him, so maybe it’s just a continuing theme from the 70s, of these heroes who didn’t want to be heroes. They don’t wear capes, they don’t even shave. They only help out when called upon, and even then they push back until they’re forced into action. When they win, or when they’re proven right, they don’t gloat, not that any kind of hero gloats. But they won’t even let themselves be celebrated. They just move on. They’re necessary heroes and they’re just doing a job.
I guess the real takeaway in a film like this is that this is a world that needs these almost superhuman heroes just to maintain a healthy balance in society. These are heroes created by the problems of our society. They don’t save us from super villains or aliens or even a bank robber like in the comic book hero days. Instead they save us from ourselves, but we don’t even realize it because we don’t think we’re part of the problem.