My sole mission during the summer of 1981 was simple: Sneak in to see Escape from New York. The problem was that I was only 12, I looked about 10, and the movie was rated R. Before the summer was up, I had seen every G and PG movie playing at the multiplex, without ever seeing the only one that really mattered. Finally, an adult took pity on me and pretended to be my guardian. After weeks and weeks of failed attempts, I was finally watching Escape from New York, and I was not disappointed.
This week marks the arrival of a special-edition, double-disc release of director John Carpenter's cynical cult classic. Set in what was then the not-too-distant future of 1997, the film takes place in a dystopian world where the island of Manhattan has been transformed into a maximum-security prison. There's no escaping this walled hellhole, but when Air Force One is hijacked and crash-lands inside the prison, the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) is taken hostage. The only hope for the free world is master criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), who has just been sentenced to life in the prison.
Filmed on a low-budget of less than $6 million, Escape from New York was Carpenter's attempt to break free of the horror genre that defined his previous two films, The Fog and the cult sensation Halloween. As in his breakout film Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter was paying tribute to the Howard Hawks westerns he loved as a child, infusing them with a dark, absurd sense of humor. Despite the studio's desire to cast Charles Bronson in the now-legendary role of Snake, the director decided to go with Russell, with whom he'd worked on the made-for-television film Elvis. At the time, Russell was still struggling to find his place in Hollywood as an adult, after years of being closely identified with such Disney films as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. For Russell, who plays the role of Snake as if he were Clint Eastwood, Escape from New York was his opportunity to forever rid himself of his Dexter Riley persona and reinvent himself as an action hero.
The DVD features an audio commentary from the 1994 laserdisc release, as well as a second commentary track from producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. The second disc features a "making of" documentary that covers much of the same topics as the audio commentaries. Die-hard fans of Escape from New York will be happy to know that the original opening sequence, which was wisely cut from the theatrical release, is also on the second disc.
In this age of special-effects extravaganzas laden with elaborate action sequences, Escape from New York could easily pale in comparison to contemporary films like Matrix Revolutions. But after two decades, Carpenter's film still holds up, proving that a good story and solid filmmaking supersedes all the bells and whistles so often used to make up for a lack of quality.