What’s your favorite John Carpenter film?
Halloween is an obvious choice. It’s probably the film that John Carpenter is best-known for. The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13 are two other popular choices. Libertarians and anarchists have embraced They Live as a sacred text. In The Mouth of Madness is one of the few films to capture the feel of a classic H.P. Lovecraft story. Christine is one of the best of the Stephen King adaptations. My techphobic father recently purchased a Blu-ray player just so he could watch Big Trouble In Little China whenever he felt like it.
For me, though, my favorite will always be Escape From New York.
Everything about this movie, from the premise to the execution to the darkly funny ending, is pure brilliance. For those who have been living off the grid for the last 40 years, Escape From New York takes place in what was, at the time of the film’s initial release, the near future. Due to a 400% increase in crime, Manhattan has been turned into a floating prison. A wall has been built around the island. The bridges are covered in mines. All of the residents are prisoners who have been sentenced to a life term and the Chock Full O’Nuts is now literally full of nuts.
There’s a new resident of New York City. He’s the President (Donald Pleasence!) and he was supposed to soon deliver a classified cassette tape to the Soviets. Instead, with the world on the verge of war, Air Force One has crashed in Manhattan and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes!!) is holding him hostage. Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef!!!) recruits notorious criminal Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell!!!!) to sneak into the prison and retrieve the cassette and save the President, by any means necessary. If Snake succeeds, he’ll get a pardon. If Snake fails, he’ll die due to the microexplosives that have been injected into his system.
How unbelievably cool is Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin? Before fanfic was even known by that name, people were writing stories about Snake Plisskin’s past and how he lost his eye. Delivering his lines in a Clint Eastwood-style rasp, Kurt Russell gives one of the best action hero performances of all time. (Snake was the role that transformed Russell from being a clean-cut former Disney child star to being a cult film icon.) Everything that Snake says is quotable and, even with tiny explosives circulating through his blood, Snake never loses his cool. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like Snake cares whether he lives or dies and that’s what makes Snake such a strong hero. He’s wiling to take the risks that no one else would. If he saves the President and the world, cool. If he doesn’t, neither was probably worth saving anyways. At the end of the film, Snake reveals that there are things that he does care about. If you don’t appreciate the people who sacrificed their lives for you, don’t expect Snake to do you any favors.
Snake gets some help from a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces, all of whom have their own reasons for trying to save the President from the Duke. Harry Dean Stanton is Brain while Adrienne Barbeau is Maggie. Brain is the smartest man in Manhattan and Maggie’s good with a gun and it’s too bad that we never got a prequel about how they met. My favorite of Escape from New York‘s supporting cast is Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, who is the perfect New York taxi driver and whose taste in music plays off in an unexpectedly satisfying way.
Escape From New York is John Carpenter at his best, an exciting race against time full of memorable characters and thrilling action. Whenever I go to New York and I cross over a bridge into Manhattan, I think about Snake, Cabbie, and the gang driving through a minefield. Everyone who meets Snake says “I thought you were dead,” but we know better. Snake Plisskin will never die and neither will my love for Escape From New York.