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Should I Watch..? 'Escape From New York' (1981)

Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Escape From New York is a dystopian action thriller film released in 1981 and was co-written and directed by John Carpenter. Written in the mid-1970's as a reaction to the Watergate scandal, the film is set in the near future when New York has been converted into a maximum security prison. Former soldier Snake Plissken is sent in and given 24 hours to rescue the President after Air Force One crashes somewhere in the city. The cast includes Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes and Harry Dean Stanton. The film was a commercial and critical success and has proved influential to other filmmakers like J.J. Abrams as well as the creator of the Metal Gear Solid video games, Hideo Kojima. It also led to a belated sequel—Escape From L.A.—being released in 1996.


What's it about?

In the then-future of 1988, the decision is taken to convert Manhattan Island into a vast prison complex after a massive increase in crime. With all inhabitants relocated, a 50-foot concrete wall is then built around the island with all bridges being mined to prevent the inmates escaping. The police don't supervise the prison itself but patrol the waterways with armed helicopters as well as the wall itself. Fast forward to 1997 and after a hijacking of Air Force One takes place whilst carrying the President to a peace conference, the President only just survives in his escape pod while the plane itself crashes into Manhattan.

Police Commissioner Bob Hauk attempts a rescue but quickly finds that the inmates have taken the President hostage, promising to release him only if everyone inside is granted access to the mainland with 24 hours. With that in mind, Hauk approaches former Special Forces operative Snake Plissken with a deal—find and rescue the President within the time-limit in order to acquire a pardon for his crimes. After being injected with microscopic explosives to prevent him flying to freedom, Snake glides onto the roof of the World Trade Centre and begins his search...


What's to like?

Carpenter's true strength as a director is the ability to replicate a B-movie atmosphere in whatever project he's working on but rarely does it work as well as it does with this film. With a plot lifted straight from a video rental store somewhere, Escape From New York is arguably the B-movie to end them all with Russell in excellent form as the larger-than-life Snake. It's no wonder that the film has been imitated so often—as well as Metal Gear Solid, I also found myself reminiscing about the excellent Batman: Arkham City and Fallout 4 video games.

Remembering not to take the movie seriously, I actually found myself enjoying it far more than I thought I might. The sets and characters all have a distressed and abandoned look to them which makes the film all the more convincing. Russell is surrounded by a strong supporting cast as well—Stanton and Borgnine are interesting characters though Hayes hasn't much to do as the villainous Duke besides driving around in his ridiculous Cadillac. I also wanted a bit more from Van Cleef whose experience in these sort of films shines through. But for me, Pleasence is actually a great President—despite the British accent. His reactions to the brutality and captivity he finds himself in are truly believable.

Russell's performance as Snake Plissken is said to be his favourite of his entire career.

Russell's performance as Snake Plissken is said to be his favourite of his entire career.

Fun Facts

  • As computers capable of 3D rendering were too expensive at the time, Carpenter used an ingenious method as an alternative. A model of New York City was painted black but with bright white tape along the side of the buildings. A camera was then simply moved above the model to recreate the effect.
  • The opening narration and voice of the prison computer was provided by an uncredited Jamie Lee Curtis, who had her cinematic debut in Carpenter's 1978 slasher flick Halloween.
  • This is the first film in history shot on Liberty Island beneath the Statue Of Liberty. In fact, the scenes filmed there—along with the morning helicopter flight above Manhattan—were the only ones actually filmed in New York itself.
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What's not to like?

Naturally, for a low-budget film that's over thirty years old, there are going to be one or two issues. The soundtrack, for example, is horribly dated with ominous synth chords echoing throughout the production. And while Snake looks every inch the anti-hero with his menacing tattoo and eye-patch, the massive amount of modifications to his firearm make him look like a Lego man holding a ray gun. Generally speaking, though, the film does a great job of looking like it was shot in the middle of a run-down urban metropolis and this heightens the film's unlikely plausibility.

There are still a couple of things I would like to have seen addressed. The film's portrayal of the inmates feels a touch theatrical - nobody seemed like a criminal serving a life sentence while Frank Doubleday, as the Duke's right-hand-man Romero, seems like a demented extra from The Warriors. And assuming that New York had been left to rack and ruin once the inmates were relocated, what's the likelihood of working cars still being found after all this time? But I'm being picky - the film is a no-holds-barred exercise in cinematic violence and B-movie plotting and with such a limited ambition, I'm pleased to say that it succeeds on both counts.

The dystopian vision of an abandoned Big Apple, together with the various gangs housed within, feels believable and somewhat chilling.

The dystopian vision of an abandoned Big Apple, together with the various gangs housed within, feels believable and somewhat chilling.

Should I watch it?

It's easy to see why Escape From New York has maintained its cult following for all these years - it's an oddly cheesy but gripping film that makes the most of its budget limitations and gives Kurt Russell one of the few defining roles in his career. Looking at it from a modern perspective, the film is technically impressive but the plot means that it never really seems like the all-action blockbuster it wants to be. Still, it's easy to enjoy it for what it is - an occasionally light-hearted adventure for adults with silly characters rescuing the President...

Great For: lovers of cheese, Eighties nostalgics, Carpenter's reputation

Not So Great For: seasoned action fans, younger viewers, anyone looking for a trashy B-movie

What else should I watch?

The film became such a cult sensation that it took fifteen years for a sequel to come along - a pity that it wasn't worth the wait. Escape From L.A. didn't match the reception received by its predecessor with many critics citing the film's uneasy balance between being a full-on action movie or a satire of one. Despite Carpenter preferring the sequel to the original, it took roughly the same amount as this film but on a much higher budget, resulting in a much smaller profit. One suspects that after losing so much money, a third film won't materialise any time soon.

The future is, of course, hard to predict and many movies have tried and failed over the years. But the possibilities are always more fascinating than the reality, whether its RoboCop and its satirical look at cybernetics or the seemingly endless Planet Of The Apes franchise. A more disturbing look at the future comes in the form of James Cameron's The Terminator which sees Arnold Schwarzenegger travel back in time to ty and assassinate poor Linda Hamilton. Or how about the endlessly imitated sci-fi shooter The Matrix with its stunning effects, breath-taking story-telling and imaginative setting from the minds of the Wachowskis.

Main Cast


Kurt Russell

Snake Plissken

Lee Van Cleef

Bob Hauk

Ernest Borgnine


Donald Pleasence

President Of The United States

Isaac Hayes

The Duke

Harry Dean Stanton

Harold "Brain" Hellman

Adrienne Barbeau


Technical Info

DirectorJohn Carpenter


John Carpenter & Nick Castle

Running Time

99 minutes

Release Date (UK)

24th September, 1981




Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller

© 2016 Benjamin Cox

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