Though John Carpenter amassed several classics to his name by the time he made Escape from New York, the 1981 film feels in many respects like the director’s quintessential work. A genre mashup of action, suspense, black comedy, and science fiction, the film demonstrates Carpenter’s capacity to juggle multiple styles and tones with his minimal aesthetic. Economy is the director’s trademark, and it’s this film, his first large-scale work, that truly demonstrates it.
Matte paintings and miniatures of an apocalyptic, anarchic New York lend the film an epic scale previously unseen in Carpenter’s filmography, but the director employs them in an austere manner that maximizes the imposing feel of the city hanging over Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) with only a few seconds of effects work. Desiccated East St. Louis doubled for the city, and Carpenter uses the environment with ruthless efficiency. With the exception of an early scene that fills Carpenter’s quota for shambling, zombified netherworld denizens rising from the tunnels to silently lurch toward our hero, people rarely appear in the frame in groups larger than four or five, emphasizing the size of the backdrop by removing nearly everything else.
Many of the film’s pleasures lie in the goofy archetypes that Carpenter upholds and skewers. Everyone greets Snake with “I thought you were dead,” in homage to the John Wayne movie Big Jake, while Isaac Hayes’s prisoner ringleader doubles down on the Wayne love by adopting the title of Duke. Ernest Borgnine, who always looked old and always sounded young, gets a part tailor-made for him in the form of Cabbie, a world-weary, capable fighter who nonetheless speaks like a newsie, with lines like “You’re Snake Plissken, ain’t ya!” delivered with an understood “Gee whiz!” attached to the front of them. Fashion choices, ranging from rotting disco gowns to Lost Boy tunics, divorce the film of any sense of time, as if the city’s entire history, and the adopted histories and lore of those who came to its shores, were suddenly put on garish display. For a film that just barely stretches past 90 minutes, Escape from New York even makes time for diverting oddities like a pro-wrestling match to the death, or a cross-dressing vaudeville act that permits the prisoners to let off steam.
Of course, the film’s focal point remains Russell, who gives his most iconic performance as Plissken. He speaks in a contemptuous whisper, forcing people to lean in to understand him just so they can better hear a variation of “fuck off.” The actor effectively plays an extreme manifestation of his own libertarianism, seething at the mission of saving the head of a corrupt government and getting by solely on his own resolve and self-reliance. Russell and Carpenter share the same macabre sense of humor, and the actor knows just how to time the director’s arch dialogue to turn each line into a joke. Hell, even the character’s striking appearance is ridiculous, mixing an eye patch with designer jeans and a skintight, sleeveless shirt, and a hairdo that suggests this special-forces soldier-cum-rebel had a Farrah Fawcett fixation.
Carpenter began his feature-length career in comedy with the haphazard student film Dark Star, but the vicious, nihilistic wit at the heart of Escape from New York was new territory for a director whose breakout movies were all entropic thrillers that unfurled with terrifying, metronomic precision. This film lives up to Carpenter’s original career dream of being a generic jack of all trades before he got locked into horror, and as if making up for lost time it tries to be as many kinds of movie as possible. That it succeeds is a testament to its exquisite cast of game character actors, its political timeliness, and Carpenter’s complex but uncluttered vision, which would only grow more bold across the coming decade.
An undeniable step up from the film’s previous high-def release, Shout! Factory’s transfer of a vaunted 2K restoration nonetheless fails to smooth out every kink. The soft lighting of much of the film leaves an inherent lack of full texture, but the film’s rare day-lit scenes are almost gauzy. Such flaws can be identified as endemic to the film negative, but there are other issues here that could have been fixed, like a persistently recurring blue line that bisects the frame every so often. On the positive side, grain appears much healthier in this release, and in general textures are much more defined, and Dean Cundey’s grim cinematography has never looked better. The audio track, though, is unimpeachable: Shout include a lossless version of the original stereo, but the remixed 5.1 surround sound is so exceptionally done that even purists might prefer it. Dialogue and foley effects are deftly mixed, but the real highlight, as with any high-def John Carpenter release, is the chance to hear the score in its fullest form. Escape boasts one of the director’s finest soundtracks, and maybe the one that most strongly demonstrates Carpenter’s influence on electronic dance music, so the clear, cavernous low-end in particular is a highlight of the disc.
Shout makes up for the MGM Blu-ray’s appalling lack of features by restoring the copious extras of the old special-edition DVD and adding a few new extras of its own. Featurettes dive into topics such as the visual effects and the score, while various EPK material offers interviews with actor Joe Unger and filmmaker David DeCoteau, old behind-the-scenes documentaries, and a deleted scene of a planned bank-robbery sequence (the latter of which includes commentary from Carpenter and Kurt Russell). The disc also comes with trailers and photo galleries, but central to the extras are the three commentary tracks. A new commentary with actress Adrienne Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey nicely complements the old track with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves in terms of offering information, but for sheer fun, you can’t beat the Carpenter/Russell commentary. The two spend half the time laughing uproariously at every silly thing, teasing each other, and just generally behaving like the two old buddies they are. If you’ve never listened to a Carpenter and Russell commentary, there’s no time like the present, and this one is as fun as any of their other ones.
An occasionally inconsistent visual transfer notwithstanding, this is easily the best home-video release to date of John Carpenter’s sci-fi spectacle, with a near-perfect audio track and enough extras to satisfy any diehard.