J.D. Lafrance
Escape from New York DVD Review

Escape from New York

December 1, 2001

Director: John Carpenter,
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Season Hubley, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Joe Unger, Frank Doubleday, John Strobel, John Cothran Jr., Garrett Bergfeld, ,

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DVD Review

J.D. Lafrance

Escape From New York (1981) is a slick, futuristic race against time. It was made for a small budget from then up-and-coming filmmaker, John Carpenter and went on to become a critical and commercial success. It also spawned a loyal fanbase and an inferior sequel/remake in 1996. A few years ago, MGM released a bare-bones DVD of EFNY and were quickly criticized in reviews for not including anything in the way of supplemental material. A glaring omission for such a beloved movie. The studio has more than redeemed itself with this new two DVD Special Edition that should please the dedicated following for this film.

Escape From New York is set a few years in the future. Crime in the United States has gotten so bad that Manhattan Island in New York City has become a maximum security prison with one simple rule: “Once you go in, you don’t come out.” One night, the President’s plane, en route to an important summit in Hartford, is taken over by terrorists who crash it into the World Trade Towers (eerily predicting the events of 9/11). The President (Pleasance) survives the crash but is taken prisoner by the inmates, led by the Duke of New York (Hayes).

Enter Snake Plissken (Russell), an ex-soldier (now legendary fugitive), has been captured by the government and is scheduled to be dumped into the prison. Instead, Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Van Cleef) offers him a deal: go into the prison, find the President, bring him back and a piece of vital information that the politician has on his person in exchange for a full pardon. Sounds easy, right? There’s a catch: Snake only has 22 hours to do all this because by then the conference will be over and the world will be thrown into chaos. As an incentive not to just simply abandon his mission and do whatever he wants, two explosive charges lodged in his neck to keep him focused on the task at hand. And with this enticing premise, the film kicks into high gear as Snake enters the world’s most dangerous prison to find the President and save the world.

The heart of EFNY is its main character, Snake Plissken. His cynical, world-weary attitude flies in the face of the earnest authorities who send him off to the save the world. Snake could care less. All he cares about is the next sixty second. It is this kind of intensity that makes him such an interesting character. He is the ideal anti-hero – intent on getting the job done and content on being left alone. Snake doesn’t need anyone. Kurt Russell’s performance clearly echoes Clint Eastwood’s style of acting – the strong, silent type. Snake is a clever hybrid of Eastwood’s The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry. It is an amusing parody/homage of Eastwood’s two most famous cinematic characters and this is only reinforced by the appearance of Lee Van Cleef (who appeared in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly opposite Eastwood). It is to Russell’s credit that he makes Snake a character you want to root for, that you want to see win at the end. There is something charismatic about him that makes such a likable character.

EFNY features a strong supporting cast of character actors, like veteran thespian Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, the smartest man in the prison, and Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, a hack who stayed in New York even after it changed into a prison. R&B singer Isaac Hayes was perfectly cast as The Duke of New York, the film’s bad guy. To create the impression that Snake was really in trouble, he needed a strong adversary and Hayes more than fills these shoes. He is laid back but menacing and quickly establishes himself as a bad mutha that is not to be messed with. The supporting cast continually offers all sorts of tantalizing tidbits that allude to Snake’s colourful past, to conditions in the prison and how the inmates have created their own world.

MGM has assembled a perfect looking transfer of this film. The crystal clear image highlights cinematographer, Dean Cundey’s masterful camerawork—one of the most important elements in creating a dark, foreboding atmosphere of this futuristic film noir. The 5.1 surround soundtrack comes through loud and clear, showcasing Carpenter’s menacing electronic score.

Special Features:

The first DVD features two audio commentaries. The first one is with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. Their track focuses on production anecdotes and how the special effects of the film were achieved. Hill points out that a young James Cameron worked on the many of the film’s special effects. She also talks at length about making such an ambitious film on a low budget and the way they cut their costs down. For example, there is only one shot in the film that was actually done in New York City (the obvious shot of the Statue of Liberty) while the majority of principal photography was done in St. Louis and Los Angeles.

The second audio track, with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, is the one fans will enjoy the most. They joke and banter with each other like old friends and it is this relaxed, conversational tone that really makes this track such an enjoyable listen. Russell recalls having trouble getting into the New York City premiere because security didn’t recognize him and so he had to pay his way to get in! Carpenter tends to describe what is being shown which is annoying at times but Russell keeps him on track with personal observations that spark dialogue between the two men.

The second DVD features the majority of supplemental material. The best of the bunch is an excellent documentary entitled, “Return to Escape From New York.” Carpenter talks about how the character of Snake Plissken came from a life-long admiration of anti-heroes who rebel against authority. Russell states that Snake is his favourite character out of all the films he has done. Incredibly, the film was actually shot in St. Louis after a big fire in 1977 that burnt out several blocks of the downtown area. Carpenter and his crew convinced the city to shut off the electricity to these blocks at night and they proceeded to transform the burnt out remains into a New York City of the future. Another treat for fans is all the new cast and crew interviews conducted especially for this documentary: the always radiant Adrienne Barbeau, the normally publicity shy Harry Dean Stanton and even the Duke himself, Isaac Hayes! They all speak fondly of their experiences on the film.

“Making of John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles Comic” is a photo montage showing how an issue of the comic book is put together from rough sketches to its arrival in stores. In a nice touch, the issue that is shown is also included with the DVD.

“Snake Bites” trailer montage is a collection of clips from the film scored to some atmospheric electronic music. This really isn’t all that interesting and seems like unnecessary padding to fill out the DVD.

The other extra that has been eagerly anticipated by fans is the famous original opening of the film. Snake and his partner rob a bank and are caught with Snake being arrested and his partner being gunned down. This scene sets up Snake’s arrival at the New York prison but Carpenter cut it because test audiences were confused by it. This footage was thought to be lost long ago. It is finally being presented in its entirety on this DVD. The footage is quite grainy but watchable and features an optional audio commentary by Carpenter and Russell (who had never seen the footage before).


J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance


Rating: 96%



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