Tuesday, September 14, 2010

#39. Escape From New York (1981)

Directed By: John Carpenter

Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine

Tag line: "The world's greatest leader is a hostage in the most dangerous place on Earth. Now only the deadliest man alive can save him"

Trivia:  The studio wanted Tommy Lee Jones for the role of Snake Plissken. Due to his prior work, they didn't think Kurt Russell was right for the role

Escape from New York was the first John Carpenter movie I ever saw. Released in 1981, I caught the film about a year later, when it made its way to cable television. Needless to say, I loved it. I loved the action, loved the story, hell, I loved pretty much everything about this movie. But I have to admit, at the time I did have a slight problem with the casting. As amazing as it may sound today, Kurt Russell in an action film was not something most people were accustomed to seeing in the early 80’s. 

It’s 1997. the entire island of Manhattan has been transformed into a heavily guarded prison, where the worst criminals known to man are being kept. Security is air-tight, and nobody has ever escaped, but when Air Force One is hijacked and flown into the island’s airspace, police find they have a serious problem on their hands. The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence), carrying a very important briefcase (which is hand-cuffed to his wrist), escapes by way of a secret pod hidden within Air Force One. Unfortunately, the pod lands smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan, and the leader of the free world is immediately taken prisoner by the inmates. To rescue the President, authorities send in Snake Plissken (Russell), a one-eyed mercenary who's just been sentenced to life in prison. Promised a pardon if he’s successful, Snake is given 24 hours to rescue the President and bring him to safety. But failure to do so may cost Snake more than his freedom…it might cost him his life. 

In the previous decade, Kurt Russell had been a fixture in Disney-produced family films, and I can’t tell you how strange it was to see the guy from movies I grew up with, like Superdad, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Barefoot Executive, walking around with long hair, an eye patch and a tattoo of a cobra on his chest. But all my apprehensions quickly faded once Snake Plissken landed his one-man glider on top of the World Trade Center. At that precise moment, Escape from New York ceased to be a John Carpenter film. From there out, it belonged to Kurt Russell. 

A man of few words (and when he does speak, it’s usually through clenched teeth), Snake Plissken is a former war hero, the youngest man ever decorated by the President of the United States for valor. But that’s ancient history. Now, he’s a criminal, a common thug who tried to rob the Federal Reserve, and was handed a life sentence for his troubles. Simultaneously functioning as hero and anti-hero, Snake is the perfect lead for a movie like Escape from New York. Despised by both the cops (Commissioner Hauk, played by veteran actor Lee van Cleef, is himself a former military man, and hates the fact Plissken tarnished his illustrious combat record) and the inmates (they have no intention of turning the President over to their new ‘comrade’), Snake is a true loner, making him all the more dangerous. Russell plays Plissken as the perennial bad-ass, a guy who doesn’t give a damn about anything. He has no time for authority, for rules, or for anyone trying to make him submit to either. 

Watching Kurt Russell in this role was an eye-opening experience, and I’ve never seen The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes in quite the same way since.



SweetJimmyC said...

Recently bought it on blu-ray...one of my all-time favs

Dave Becker said...

Jimmy: I own the Blu-Ray on this, and it's great! ESCAPE is definitely one of Carpenter's best films (and with his string of hits from the 70's and 80's, that's REALLY saying something!).

Thanks for the comment