Manhattan has become an enormous prison, the President of the United States gets trapped inside, only a lone criminal can save him. Nothing about that really makes sense but all together are what make John Carpenter's 1981 film Escape from New York
so great. Part of the same period of cinema that produced other great dark, dystopian city films like The Warriors
and Blade Runner
, Escape from New York
brings to the table the dynamics of a Spaghetti Western and the same leftover embitterment about that Vietnam War and Richard Nixon that inspired First Blood
a year later.
Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken is both a homage to Clint Eastwood and an anticipation of Rambo and, of course, something quite unlike anything else. His imperturbable surliness and confidence don't crack much to allow sentimentality to seep through, here's a movie where, in spite of all that happens, the protagonist doesn't change all that much by the end.
A former soldier, now in chains, he's called in by Spaghetti Western veteran Lee Van Cleef who's in charge of the team trying to figure out how to save the president from the gang that runs the former city. Plissken is his solution to the fact that the gang holding the President says they'll kill him if they see troops.
I love how dark this movie is. As Plissken stalks down the grimy, messed up streets, you completely lose sight of him sometimes in this movie's copious shadows. There were a lot of movies like that made in the 70s where it seems like the visible portions of the image are just a handful of little cut-out patches in black. I really miss that, it's so much better than to-day's typical obsession with making sure everything's always visible. With darkness comes a real effective disorientation and helps convey a sense of constant threat.
Every character Plissken meets in the city prison is almost as larger than life as he is--There's a cab driver played by Ernest Borgnine who is the epitome of the old stereotypical New York cab driver, in no small part due to the fact that he's managed to stay in business even after the city's been turned into a prison.
There's a genius who's a legend in the city called Brain played by Harry Dean Stanton and his girlfriend, Maggie, played by Adrienne Barbeau, follows him around displaying copious, fantastic cleavage at all times.
With Isaac Hayes as the Duke, the leader of the gang holding the president, and Donald Pleasence as the president, there is not one weak note in this cast. Everyone plays it big which is just right for this story.