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Escape from New York (December 6/03)

Escape from New York marked John Carpenter and Kurt Russell's first foray into the sci-fi genre (their first collaboration was a made-for-TV flick about Elvis), and the film still holds up remarkably well today. Made for a budget of around $5 million and written by Carpenter (along with Nick Castle), the film is consistently entertaining and feels like just the sort of movie that's sorely missing from contemporary multiplexes.

As we learn in the film's opening moments, after an exponential rise in the crime rate, the island of Manhattan is turned into a Federal prison - completely isolated from the rest of the country thanks to a humongous wall. When the President (played by Donald Pleasence) finds himself stuck inside the prison after a hijacking, the authorities decide to send in a notorious criminal named Snake Plissken (Russell). Though Snake's not exactly thrilled about the gig (he's injected with a microscopic bomb that will explode if he doesn't return in the allotted time), he gets started on his task - and finds himself running into a variety of oddball characters on the island.

Right from the opening credits, there's no mistaking Escape from New York for anything but a John Carpenter film. As is the case with the majority of his work, Carpenter's composed the main theme for the movie and it nicely sets the tone for what's to follow (that it's insanely catchy doesn't hurt). Kurt Russell's said on multiple occasions that Snake's always been his favorite character, and it's easy enough to see why. With that bad-ass eyepatch and days-old beard, Snake just reeks of cool. Like the antiheroes of yesteryear generally embodied by folks like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, Snake doesn't care about anything or anyone except himself. His complete disregard for everything around him is a fascinating thing, and certainly makes him the sort of person we all wish we could be at one time or another.

But as cool as Snake is, he's been surrounded by a cast of characters that often threatens to eclipse him in that department (this is a movie with Isaac Hayes in it, for crying out loud!) Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine and Donald Pleasence all show up during the course of the film, and give the story the feel of a classic "guy" flick. Aside from Russell's Snake, though, the real star of the film is Carpenter's amazing sense of style. Along with cinematographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter shrouds this world in darkness (there are few bright sequences in the film, and daylight is non-existent) and often employs dim sources of light to illuminate his sets. The likelihood is that this was done to obscure the film's low budget, but whatever the case, it works. The film has an ominous air about it, and we're completely convinced that New York City has indeed become a warzone.

Escape from New York is a cult classic with good reason. Though it's not the best movie to emerge from the Carpenter/Russell partnership (that remains The Thing), it's an awfully close second.

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About the DVD: MGM has done a fantastic job in giving Escape from New York the special edition treatment. The most obvious place to start, aside from the flawless widescreen transfer, is the phenomenally entertaining commentary track featuring Carpenter and Russell. As they've already proved on titles like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, these guys really have a rapport with each other and listening to one of their tracks is like hanging out with them for a couple of hours. Also included is a track featuring producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves, which is quite informative but kind of pales in comparison to the Russell/Carpenter track. On the second disc, there's a newly produced documentary entitled "Return to Escape from New York." Running around 30-minutes, this proves to be a fascinating look at the production (and, surprisingly enough, does a nice job of avoiding information that was covered in both commentary tracks). Also included is a 10-minute deleted scene which is actually an alternate opening, and features Snake robbing a high-tech bank. It's certainly interesting to see some new footage from this movie, but it's easy enough to understand why it was cut out (Snake with compassion is never a good thing). Rounding out the disc's supplemental content is a short look behind the scenes of the Snake Plissken comic book (the first issue of which is included), an extensive photo gallery, and three trailers for the film.
© David Nusair