Not having been around in the 60s and 70s when Kurt Russell was making a name for himself on TV and in Disney movies like 'The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,' I don't know how popular the young actor was at the time. He was obviously popular enough though as he springboarded his early Disney career into feature films as an adult that typically had him playing some variation of a tough guy.
Part of that transition is thanks in great part to action/horror director John Carpenter who cast Russell in two early 80s movies, Escape from New York and The Thing (a remake of a 1950s sci-fi movie). The Thing is one of my favorite horror/sci-fi combos with Russell headlining as MacReady, a booze-swilling, tough talking helicopter pilot of a remote science station in the Arctic. Seeing the cast and reading the plot of 'Escape,' I thought I'd enjoy that one as much but came away disappointed.
In 1988, crime in the U.S. escalates over 400% and the island of Manhattan is turned into a maximum security prison. A huge wall is built all around the island, and all the bridges and exits off the island are mined so prisoners can't escape. It's a self-governed prison where there are no guards, and the prisoners rule themselves with no interference from above. The idea is simple, as a prisoner you go onto the island and never leave. But after years of success, a revolutionary group hijacks Air Force One with the President (Donald Pleasence) on board and crashes the plane onto the island.
The prison commissioner, Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) is forced to come up with a plan to get the President out of the island prison safely and is facing a deadline in doing it. The President needs to speak at a world summit -- the U.S., Russia, and China seem to be at war but it's never clearly spelled out -- and is carrying vital information. Hauk turns to his only option, a prisoner about to be sent to Manhattan, Snake Plisken (Russell), promising him a full pardon if he can get the President out in only 22 hours. Snake agrees, and gets onto the island via a glider that lands on top of the World Trade Center (a very eerie scene) only to find that the President is a prisoner of the Duke (Isaac Hayes), the self-appointed ruler of Manhattan Prison.
Carpenter's films have a reputation as cult classics, movies that aren't necessarily high quality but are nonetheless extremely entertaining. 'Escape' certainly has that popularity with its fans, but I struggled getting into the movie. It was filmed on a small budget, but that tends to work here more often than not. Carpenter uses parts of downtown St. Louis as a stand-in for a ruined, beaten down Manhattan, and the setting works beautifully. Almost all the movie takes place at night in the shadowy, vacant streets where prisoners with nothing to lose hide just out of sight ready to attack if the opportunity presents itself. Atmosphere and cinematography are the least of the movie's worries.
Clocking in at a brisk 99 minutes, the movie feels stagnant at times but could also use some fleshing out of the characters, especially Plissken. Russell growls and grimaces his way through lines, making Plissken a modern-day gunfighter you could see Clint Eastwood playing in a spaghetti western. His background is hinted at -- war hero turned criminal -- but it's never dealt with in full force. Maybe it was intended that way to keep the already very stylish, very cool character a mystery, which I understand, but even a little more background would have been good. Also, Carpenter had to cut the original beginning of the movie explaining how Plissken got caught, acts the way he does and ends up being sent to Manhattan. Check it out HERE if curious. Extremely stylish sequence which could have really helped the movie out.
But in addition to little development for Plissken, the supporting cast is given even less, a real shame when considering the talent involved. Hayes is more of a presence than an actor and pulls off the part of the Duke adequately, but how did he come to power in Manhattan? Van Cleef as always is a badass, and Pleasence is really just an idea of a president. There's also Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, a longtime prisoner who still operates his cab, and Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, a prisoner living in the library who supplies the Duke with gasoline for his entourage, seen here. Cabbie gets some backstory but not much, and Brain has a history with Snake but that's never really revealed. Adrienne Barbeau's chest also makes an appearance as Maggie, Brain's girl. She says virtually nothing and wears a low-cut dress. That's the character, no frills attached.
The generally cheap feeling of the movie works in most cases, but basically nothing happens. Snake walks around a lot -- at a slow pace too considering time is of the essence -- meets people, runs around, snatches the President rather easily and tries to get out of the island prison fortress. Even Russell's cool presence couldn't save this one as an interesting story never rises to its potential and wastes a strong supporting cast.
Escape from New York <----trailer (1981): **/****