I feel that I should put this out there right away: I love this movie. It's one of many John Carpenter/Kurt Russell collaborations, and arguably one of the best-known of their films. This is also the movie that helped launch Kurt Russell's new acting career, starring previously in mostly Disney movies and more generally family-friendly films. I'm often amazed that more people are unaware of his status as a child star, and most contemporary audiences know him best for roles like this one. Plus, his character has an eyepatch! It honestly doesn't get much better than that.
For those of you that are unaware, the plot of Escape From New York is relatively simple: It's the fantastical dystopian future of 1997, and crime has reached such unprecedented heights that the entire island of Manhattan (which apparently means all of New York City, as well) has been turned into a prison. Air Force One crashes into the city due to a random revolutionary, and the President is then kidnapped by the criminal population. As luck would have it, a well-decorated military man and criminal arrives, and is then forced to rescue the president. This man is Snake Plissken, and he is a bad-ass.
See? Told you.
This film is of particular interest to me in that it features Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, and Ernest Borgnine as "Cabbie," as well as Donald Pleasance as the President. The police force that runs the prison (from outside the walls) offers Snake a full pardon in exchange for his help. To make sure that he retrieves the President in a timely manner, he injects tiny explosives into his neck, which would explode just enough to sever his arteries and kill him. So what's a guy to do, huh? Guess there's no choice but to take a glider into the city, fight some crazy post-apocalyptic Mad-Max-like criminals, check out Adrienne Barbeau, beat up Isaac Hayes, and save the day.
One thing I don't like about this movie is that it's very dark. It may have been partly my settings on the TV, but still; it's often quite difficult to see what's going on. I understand that it's the future, and all dystopian, and depressing, blah blah blah, but still. A little ambient lighting never hurt anybody. Another thing that always confused me was that everyone that Snake encounters in this dumb place seems to know who he is. Ernest Borgnine's cheerful molotov-tossing Cabbie seems to love Snake, and is super-happy to be hanging out with him. Harry Dean Stanton (a.k.a. Brain) is scared of Snake, but that's mostly because he (Brain) betrayed Snake and their friend "Fresno Bob" on an earlier job. The Duke hates him just because he's trying to save the President, and The Duke is used to being "A number one," and Snake basically beats him hands-down at being a badass.
Shortly before his untimely death, I saw parts of Escape From New York on television, and was surprised to see Isaac Hayes in the role of the villain. I'm so used to him as a comedic actor on South Park, as well as his music career and his minor role as "Asneeze" in Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men In Tights. I don't feel that they use Isaac enough in this movie, and they definitely don't let him talk enough. He doesn't get a very dignified death (in the film), either, which is a shame.
In a scene that I particularly enjoyed, a captured Snake is forced to fight for the amusement of The Duke and his army of criminal crazies. We also get to see his namesake tattoo, a particular dark and muddy-looking cobra, which is probably one of the worst movie tattoos I've ever seen. It looks like someone drew a cobra on his stomach with magic marker, but he'd never seen a cobra before. Luckily, there was someone that had seen a picture once, and they told the artist what to draw. However, the pure amateur shoddiness of his terrible tattoo is immediately forgotten when I see who he has to fight:
Yes, that's right. He has to fight Zangief from Street Fighter! In actuality, this is a character named "Slag," and he's played by the legendary Ox Baker. Not surprisingly, Snake is able to not only defeat this behemoth of craziness and beard, but he is also able to retrieve his timer-bracelet (approximately the size of a bedside alarm clock), and activate a tracer bracelet, both of which had been stolen previously, but were conveniently on some nearby wrists after the fight. Meanwhile Brain and Maggie (Barbeau) have rescued the President, and try to steal Snake's glider. Snake shows up in time to see the bad guys drop it off the top of the World Trade Center, so our anti-hero has no choice but to navigate a bridge lined with mines and explosives. Also, The Duke shows up, Cabbie randomly has the coveted audiotape that's almost as important as the President's life (though nobody's really sure how he gets it), and then everyone but Snake and the President die.
Kurt Russell makes a pretty good anti-hero, looking suitably grizzled and manly in his tank-top and camouflage leggings, shooting guys and throwing knives in their foreheads, all to the absolutely "brilliant" musical score provided by Mr. John Carpenter himself. There are explosions, people getting shot, beaten up, etc. There are no big revelations, no real secrets about mankind's future revealed, no deeper meaning. It's pure entertainment, simple and joyous. Relax and let it wash over you for a couple of hours, and you'll enjoy it. Four Ernest Borgnines out of five, or four fake-Zangiefs out of five.