By Richard Corliss
It is 1997. Manhattan Island is a maximum-security prison, surrounded by a 50 ft. high wall and containing every scurvy convict in the land. When Air Force One crashes on the island and the President (Donald Pleasence) is taken hostage, only one man has the smarts and guts to get him out alive: War Hero and Master Criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). He has 24 hours to accomplish his mission before the President misses a summit conference and the microscopic explosives implanted in Snake's arteries are automatically detonated.
On its face - and a stubbly, scarred, scowling visage it is - ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK functions smoothly as another of the new action-adventure films. John Carpenter, who hit it big with a pair of graceful, scary horror movies (HALLOWEEN, THE FOG), here returns to the tones and textures of his earlier garrison melodrama ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13: an apocolyptic shootout between the good-bad guys and the forces of maleficence. With his runty muscularity and a voice whispered through sandpaper, Kurt Russell is a sawed-off, charmless Clint Eastwood. Rather than involving the viewer with the characters, Carpenter seems content to put them on elegant display. Take it or leave it, love 'em or hate 'em, this is the face of America's future.
Maybe. But it makes more sense to see ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK as a ferocious parody of popular notions about Manhattan today - the mugger's playground and pervert's paradise made notorious in comedy monologues and movies like DEATH WISH and TAXI DRIVER. In ESCAPE, parking meters are piked with gaping corpse heads, bridges are mined to kill, the New York Public Library houses an evil genius named Brain, and Penn Station is littered with train carcasses out of a brobdingnagian's toy chest. John Carpenter is offering this summer's moviegoers a rare opportunity: to escape from the air-conditioned torpor of ordinary entertainment into the hothouse humidity of their own paranoia. It's a trip worth taking.