Escape from New York (1981)

(On TV, August 2017) I may have made a mistake in watching Escape from L.A. a few weeks ago, before seeing the original Escape from New York. Both films do run against very similar lines, after all: juvenile bad guys sent under duress in a forbidden zone to get someone back, but so anti-authority that they end up rebelling at some point. Escape from L.A. apes the first film almost plot point per point, down to the lunacy of some sequences. But while you would think that watching the first one so soon after the second would lower my appreciation of the first one, the reverse ended up happening: it only made me dislike the second one even more. I recognize that you can’t really blame the first for the excesses of the second. But more to the point, the first one is simply better-executed in the constraints of its formula. Never mind that the premise of turning Manhattan Island in a prison is nonsensical: the point here is putting up a backdrop for dystopian action. Peak-era Adrienne Barbeau is always welcome, but Kurt Russell is most remarkable as Snake Plissken, first in a series of likable rogues that he’d get to play for the rest of his career. The entire film has an edge of writer/director John Carpenter’s inspired lunacy to it, from strange set pieces to audacious set design to unconventional characters to sometimes-shocking moments (such as the president going full-crazy near the climax). Escape from New York does have its annoyances, and those do mirror those of its sequel: the oh-so-cool protagonist with an attitude that mostly appeals to teenagers; the nihilistic conclusion; the moronic elements of its premise; the tiring nature of its post-apocalyptic chic. But seeing Escape from New York at a time when (say) The Walking Dead is practically mainstream TV must be very different from seeing Escape from New York in 1981. It may not be fresh by today’s standards, but it’s easy to respect its place as a film that influenced many others. I still won’t forgive the sequel, though.

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