At the start of the ’80s, both John Carpenter and Kurt Russell were in need of a little image rehab. Carpenter had made two back-to-back horror hits, and likely wasn’t interested in going for number three; he was offered The Philadelphia Experiment, but chose instead to whisk the dust off a futuristic action script he’d tinkered with in the early ’70s. It’s possible that Carpenter wanted to go back to his true calling as a maker of Westerns in non-Western garb, and Escape from New York is a natural companion piece to his earlier Assault on Precinct 13. For Russell’s part, he’d done Elvis (with Carpenter) and had just finished Used Cars; but that was a comedy, and Russell needed something as far away from his Disney roots as humanly possible. S.D. “Snake” Plissken, the scruffy, cynical, one-eyed combat veteran turned career criminal turned unwilling rescuer, was just the ticket.
There are essentially two John Carpenters: the one who makes bleak horror movies and bows to Hitchcock and Val Lewton, and the one who makes bad-ass movies and genuflects to John Ford and Howard Hawks. Escape from New York is Bad-Ass John in full effect, and its influence cannot be understated; Robert Rodriguez studied the film closely, and James Cameron, who worked on the movie’s special effects and matte paintings, owed a very large debt to Escape in The Terminator, which can fairly accurately be read as the best John Carpenter movie that Carpenter never made. Escape also changed the look of urban action films, which had tended towards the gritty and grainy; Carpenter, aided by cinematographer Dean Cundey, made the action genre safe for midnight-black compositions bisected by blue flares of light or illuminated by flickering orange flame.
Beyond that, we have one of the world’s simplest plots. The President (Donald Pleasence in a nice change-of-pace comedy turn) has been kidnapped — his plane has gone down behind the walls of the maximum-security prison that the entirety of Manhattan has become. In his possession is a tape that might forestall nuclear war. He’s alive, somewhere in the urban jungle dominated by “crazies” and criminals under the iron fist of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes). Snake, who’s doing life for attempted bank robbery, is brought to police commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef, in a masterstroke of casting) and offered a deal: If he can get into New York and retrieve the President, he’ll be pardoned for his crimes. To make sure Snake doesn’t high-tail it to Canada, he’s injected with micro-explosives, which will go off in 22 hours unless he returns with the President and/or the tape. Grudgingly, Snake accepts the mission, which he doesn’t actually give a shit about.
Once Snake lands on the World Trade Center, Escape takes off. Carpenter loads it with lively supporting characters: the effusive Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), the duplicitous Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and his “squeeze” Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), and a weirdo named Romero (Frank Doubleday) whose teeth are as pointy as his hair, and who shows off the President’s finger as proof that he’s in the Duke’s clutches. Season Hubley makes a brief appearance as “Girl in Chock Full O’Nuts,” a punk-haired waif whose offer of sex in return for getting out of New York with Snake is about the closest this dour film comes to a romantic interlude. In this dystopian world of 1997, everyone is out for himself; Snake emerges as a hero only because he won’t betray anyone — he’s been hung out to dry before, and didn’t like it much.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot of action. Six million dollars only buys you so much, and there’s a stutter of gunfire here and there, but most of the movie is dedicated to pursuit or retreat. Even the gladiatorial match between Snake and the towering Ox Baker is over almost before it begins. Carpenter doesn’t shy away from lengthy set-pieces when he has to, but Escape demands economy of motion; the clock is ticking, and there’s little time to waste on big action sequences that serve no purpose other than to display the director’s skill at squibbing or fight choreography. Snake is like a brutally impatient editor set loose in the screenwriters’ story. Does it move the story along? No? Fuck it, we don’t have time.
Carpenter’s anti-authority/libertarian leanings really pop out at the end, when Snake asks the President (being pampered and puffed for an impending TV address) how he feels about the fact that a lot of people died to bring him home. The President uncorks some fatuous statement about how the nation is grateful for their efforts, and Snake hisses out cigarette smoke and slouches into the night, casually unravelling everything those people died for. This is Carpenter at his most cheerfully nihilistic: God and country are foolish jokes not worth fighting or dying for.
Escape adds film noir to a Western plot; it’s only set in the future because it can’t be set in the present, and nobody would have given Carpenter the money to set it in the past — the Wild West, let’s say. Snake is a gunslinger whose dim view of human nature is already several leagues past Gary Cooper at the end of High Noon. He strides into a dirty town, shoots up the joint, goes about his mission, and strides off into the moonset (for there is no sunset, or sun, in this film) with only the vague consolation of his freedom — whatever that means in a world run by idiots like the President and tyrants like the Duke.