A Helluva Town
How's this for a pulp premise? It's 1997, and all of Manhattan has been converted into a maximum-security prison for the country's convicts. There are no guards inside, just crooks - and the captive President of the United States (Donald Pleasence), who's been hijacked en route to a summit conference where the future of the world hangs in the balance. Who can get him out? The job falls to an eye-patched felon named Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), who must successfully complete his mission in 24 hours or else two lethal time bombs implanted in his neck will explode.
What follows in John Carpenter's dark and dangerous ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK will probably satisfy most action-movie addicts. It's a good workmanlike, unpretentious entertainment. But given his terrific setup, does Carpenter really make the most of it? The fun in store isn't just a matter of how Snake will rescue the Prez, but how Carpenter will play with the Big Apple. What kind of crazy society have the outcasts created? What will the new New York look like? There's a fine, funny and menacing scene when Snake first arrives and stumbles into a decrepit, candlelit old theater whose wardrobe has been appropriated by some old bums for a low-camp Broadway song-and-dance routine. It's a promising intro, but Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle don't give their imaginations free reign. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK gets more conventional as it goes along, settling for chases and narrow escapes when it could have had wild social satire as well.
Carpenter has a deeply ingrained B-movie sensibility - which is both his strength and limitation. He does clean work, but settles for too little. He uses Russell well, however. His voice muted to a soft rasp, Russell is a compelling action hero - tough, cynical and sexy. After his title performance in Carpenter's TV movie ELVIS, his wonderfully fast talking car dealer in USED CARS, this former Disney child actor has emerged as one of the most versatile leading men on the scene. And keep your eyes open for Frank Doubleday as Carpenter's most delicios villain - a wild-haired, androgynous punk who looks like a ghoulish cross between Mick Jagger and Medusa.