There are three elements that make up a film (or a novel, for that matter); story, characters, and setting. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is a film where the story is just a convenient excuse to get the awesome characters into the equally-awesome setting.
It’s the year 1997. The United States, China, and the Soviet Union have been at war for several years, and the U.S. has become a crime-ridden cesspool. There’s only one Federal prison in the entire country; Manhattan. The entire island has been surrounded by a wall, the bridges are mined, the waterways patrolled by helicopters that tend to shoot first and ask questions later, and every sentence is a life sentence. The prisoners have complete liberty within the confines of the jail, but they cannot leave.
Into this setting, the President (played by Donald Pleasence) has been taken hostage by the prisoners in New York after Air Force One is hijacked and crashed into the streets. The United States Police Force (headquartered on Liberty Island; lovely little touches like that are strewn throughout the film) is unable to force him out, and he must be rescued because of some Macguffin with a time limit. In steps Snake Plissken (played by former Disney squeaky-clean boy-genius Kurt Russell), who is given a minimum of equipment, flown to the top of the World Trade Center, and told to bring the President out before the deadline or die trying. Story? What story? Just get Plissken into the city and have him start meeting and beating the locals!
And meet and beat he does; we see absolutely fascinating snippets of what life within the prison is like. Some streets have lights, there is some sort of almost normalcy as a musical review is put on by and for the inmates, and there are even some working automobiles, including a taxi driven by “Cabbie” (Ernest Borgnine). There are various factions amongst the prisoners, but the head honcho is The Duke (Isaac Hayes). Plissken starts to track down the President, stumbling across his old partner in crime, “Brain” (Harry Dean Stanton), who had betrayed him at one point in the past. Brain has a girlfriend, Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) whose only purpose in the film seems to be to add curves and high-beams to the bleak landscape of rubble-strewn Manhattan. Not that anyone’s complaining, you understand…
Eventually, Plissken gets captured, ends up in an arena fighting the Duke’s champion warrior, and ends up finding and rescuing the President and fleeing from the Duke’s pursuit with Brain and Cabbie in tow. His prepared escape route wrecked (a plane on the roof of the World Trade Center), Plissken et al make their way to the 5th Street Bridge, which has been seeded with land-mines. Fortunately, Brain has a map, which works most of the way. Plissken gets the President out, the President kills The Duke, and Plissken’s life is saved from the explosives that have been implanted in his body. But ha-ha! Plissken has the last laugh, having swapped out the critical Macguffin cassette tape with another, making the whole enterprise for naught.
Like I say, this film is not in any way about the plot. It’s about Plissken himself, a perfectly wonderful character borne as much of Carpenter’s sharp writing as Russell’s growling muted performance. His interactions with Brain, Cabbie, and even the President are perfectly captured, not to mention his meeting with the police chief who sends him into the prison on the rescue mission in the first place. Carpenter did the music for this one himself, just as he had done with Halloween (and would again do with They Live), and while it’s not John Williams, it suits the dark and moody tone of the film exceptionally well. It’s one of those on my “if it’s on the satellite, I’ll take the time to watch it” list.
There was an unfortunate sequel, “Escape from L.A.”, but it had none of the charm of the original, and got caught up in heavy-handed social commentary in a style that works best when such is kept to subtle nods, and big-ticket action sequences that felt completely tacked on (Plissken surfing… ugh…). There are also rumors of a remake, but I can but hope they never come to fruition. (Although one rumor pegs it as a prequel, with Carpenter as Executive Producer, so it might not be as bad.)