Film: Escape From New York
By Vincent Canby
Manhattan is a giant island-prison inhabited by humanity's dregs - murderers, terrorists, thieves, swindlers, perverts of all persuasions, petty criminals and people who are permanently disoriented. The place is a zoo without bars, but there's no way out. The bridges have been mined and walled off. The tunnels are sealed. The once great buildings are mostly shells, but because these Manhattanites don't read much, and don't care about books one way or the other, the Public Library on 42nd Street doesn't look to be in quite the state of disrepair of the other landmarks.
There are no services, no government, no work. The place is a random trash heap. Life is a permanent scavenger hunt, a nonstop game of hide-and-seek - when you're "it" you're dead.
This isn't the nightmare of someone who decided to stay in town last weekend but the startlingly eerie premise of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, the brutal very fine-looking suspense melodrama by John Carpenter, the man who directed the horror-classic HALLOWEEN, the not-so-hot THE FOG and the very good, small budgeted ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, which opens today at Loew's State One and other theaters, is by far Mr. Carpenter's most ambitious, most riveting film to date.
Set in the not-too-distant future (1997), the film works so effectively as a warped vision of ordinary urban blight that it seems to be some kind of hallucinatory editorial. It may even remind you a little bit of ALPHAVILLE, if ALPHAVILLE had been directed not by Jean-Luc Goddard but by Frederico Fellini in an uncharacteristically antic mood. Its economy of style, though, would do credit to Don Siegel.
It is the dark idea of Mr. Carpenter and Nick Castle, with whom he collaborated on the screenplay, that this nation's crime rate quadruples by the late 1980's, at which time the United States Government officially takes over what's left of Manhattan and turns it into a Federal prison. Manhattan becomes a sort of super Roach Motel: the inmates check in but they don't check out. The place is supervised from the outside, from a central command post on Liberty Island, by guards and radar stations on the facing shores and by constant helicopter patrols. Once a month there is a food drop into Central Park.
At the beginning of the film, Air Force One, carrying the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) to a summit meeting in Boston, is hijacked and crash-lands near the "old" World Trade Center, where the President is retrieved and held for ransom (amnesty for all prisoners) by Manhattan's leading citizen. This is a spledidly nervy, vicious fellow (Isaac Hayes) who calls himself The Duke of New York and who drives around the city's ruins with his entourage in a limousine fitted with crystal chandeliers on either side of the front hood.
To retrieve the President, the Federal authorities coerce a young man named Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), who's on his way into the prison to serve a life sentence for a gold heist. Snake, we're given to understand, has been something of a national figure - described as "the hero of the Leningrad campaign" - before he went wrong. Snake is promised his freedom if he can get the President out in 24 hours and, just to make sure he doesn't lose interest in his mission, the authorities have implanted in his neck microscopic explosives that will go off at the end of the 24-hour period and can only be neutralized by doctors waiting on the outside.
So much for the plot, which emphasizes that the fate of the human race depends on Snake and which may not be all together plausible but works efficiently under these heightened circumstances.
Among the flotsam Snake encounters in his adventures in one of the most ominous underworlds ever seen on the screen are Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who functions as the Duke's cheif demolitions expert, Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), the mistress of Brain, and an untypically helpful New York cab driver (Ernest Borgnine) who, typically, manages to find fuel for his car where none exists.
Though Mr. Carpenter wastes no time on picturesque details, the "look" of the film is as important as its tightly constructed narrative. Credit must go to Joe Alves, the production designer, and to Dean Cundey, the cameraman, who worked on a series of actual locations in St. Louis, Los Angeles and New York, as well as with some stunning miniature sets, to create a marvelously credible, lost city.
Mr. Russell, who played the title role in Mr. Carpenter's television film ELVIS, is malevolently good as the fallen hero, a man who seems to have had a look into hell even before he lands in the remains of Manhattan. Mr. Borgnine is more or less the comedy relief, as well as the magical character who always happens to turn up with his cab when he's most needed. Mr. Stanton is fine as the emotionally unreliable Brain, and Mr. Hayes very impressive as the flamboyant Duke. Is it a coincidence that when he exhorts a crowd of followers about their coming freedom, he sounds more than a little like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? The fact that he's the film's principal villain may not sit well with some audiences, but then perhaps they'll respond to his style.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is not to be analyzed too solemnly, though. It's a toughly told, very tall tale, one of the best escape (and escapist) movies of the season.