Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #52
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: July 10, 1981
Country of Origin: United States/United Kingdom
Box Office: $25,244,700
Running Time: 99 minutes
Director: John Carpenter
Producers: Debra Hill, Larry J Franco
Screenplay: John Carpenter, Nick Castle
Narrator: Debra Hill
Special Effects: Roy Arbogast, Pat Patterson, Eddie Surkin, Gary Zink
Cinematography: Dean Cundey, Jim Lucas
Score: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Editing: Todd Ramsay
Studio: Goldcrest Films
Distributor: AVCO Embassy Pictures
Stars: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Season Hubley, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Frank Doubleday, John Strobel
Suggested Audio Candy
 John Carpenter Escape From New York
 John Carpenter “The Duke Arrives”
If I were asked to name the greatest eighties action hero, then the answer would be a no-brainer: Arnold Schwarzenegger without a shadow of a doubt or the faintest hint of a stutter. Schwarzenegger was head and biceps above the competition and his winning streak during the decade was truly second to none. However, should that question be ever so slightly reworded, I would be every bit as lightning fast with my rejoinder. While there is no doubt in my mind that The Austrian Oak reigns supreme for collective contribution, the greatest eighties action hero character is not a title he can add to his trophy cabinet.
While The Terminator was undoubtedly a formidable force of science, there was little heroic about making life hell for a short order waitress or annihilating an entire police force on their home turf. Sounds downright villainous behavior to me. A hero is someone who fights tooth and nail for the cause, never allows his head to drop, makes gussets wet just by raising a single eyebrow, and wears the kind of attire that normal folk would never dream of being able to pull off. In short, a force of nature like Snake Plissken.
This man is truly the most emblematic of his era. Indeed, I’d be hard pushed to think of another hero quite so iconic from any period. Any young lad growing up during the eighties should be aware of the name at the very least and those in the know would likely have attempted to obtain retina strain purely to enable them to turn up at school donning an eye patch. My mother used to warn me that excessive monkey spanking would lead to blindness and, after watching John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, I masturbated at every available opportunity just to be like my idol.
Of course, it wasn’t just this one accessory that made Snake Plissken the shit. I had black vests and combats too but the beard and biceps posed a little more of a problem. One of my biceps was certainly more pronounced on account of such rigorous extracurricular activity but, even thirty years later, the closest I can come to growing a growler is a few random strands that even Shaggy would scoff at. Eventually I had to concede that I would never be Snake and, while a bitter blow, I consoled myself by being his second eye from the comfort of my living room (with junk in my palm of course).
A more recent pastime has been imagining the interview process when Carpenter was casting for the part of Snake Plissken and it goes a little something like this. Firstly, the beard likely played an integral part in whittling down the numbers and this has never posed a problem for Kurt Russell. That’s hundreds of clean-shaven hopefuls straight out of the running. Indeed, I envisage him turning up in full Elvis attire, which would send a fair few more running for the door. Then, when called into Carpenter’s office, there would be a glass of fine malt whiskey already lovingly prepared, causing many of the remaining stragglers to scatter. This would leave only David Keith, Ron Silver and Kris Kristofferson hanging onto slender hope of donning that vest. Finally, as the door closed, the words “Kurty baby, I’ve got something just for you” would be the last thing our deflated trio would hear as they picked up their belongings and surrendered defeat.
Snake Plissken was so custom-made for Russell’s effortlessly cool persona that there wasn’t an actor on the circuit that could hold a candle up. It worked out a treat as a few months additional growth prepared him to play the part of R.J. MacReady in Carpenter’s The Thing directly afterwards. Over the years, the two men have become old drinking buddies and I imagine that would involve family vacations down at the ranch, baseball league games on Tuesday evenings, and Saturday night poker with Tex ‘Randall’ Cobb, Robert Davi and Lou Diamond Phillips. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had seen one another’s junk on numerous occasions and farted on each other’s pillow cases just for shits and grins. Indeed, their extraordinary working relationship would yield further sublime results in years to come although never quite as masterfully as here.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that Russell wasn’t first choice to play Plissken. Avco-Embassy Pictures wanted Charles Bronson and it just seems ludicrous to me. Heaven forbid, I would spare a crossed word for such a distinguished gentleman as Bronson. However, while he undoubtedly had screen presence, by 1981 he was sixty-years-old and starting to appear somewhat weather-beaten. Thankfully Russell was presented with a sniff of the pie and he took it with both nostrils fared by remaining in character in-between takes. The eye-patch did have to be removed as his depth perception began to suffer but I like to imagine that Kurt still has that patch, vest and combats beside his bed and gives them a run-out for Goldie’s benefit after a night on the tiles with his old pal Carpenter. No wonder she never seems to age.
Escape from New York was the right movie at precisely the right time. By the next decade it would likely have been regarded as camp but, in that moment, Snake Plissken was the hero the world needed desperately. With a chin you could strike a match on and the requisite chest hair protruding from the neck of his black wife beater, Russell positively owned the role. Meanwhile, Carpenter too was in a rich vein of form and any project this man touched around that time would invariably turn to platinum.
With Halloween and The Fog catering for horror fans more than effectively, a change of pace seemed in order. Thus, he round-up the usual suspects: regulars Tom Atkins, Adrienne Barbeau and Charles Cyphers, and long-time associates Dean Cundey, Alan Howarth and Debra Hill. In addition, he recruited the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Donald Pleasence, Ernest Borgnine and Isaac Hayes to bolster an already stellar cast and set off to make an action flick the likes of which just wouldn’t get past the planning stages nowadays.
Escape From New York places us in the year 1988. Manhattan had been fortified into a maximum security prison to curb rising crime-rates and a 50-foot containment divider erected to pen in every undesirable known to the forces and make it improbable for any party crashers to find their way inside. The problem is that the President of The United States (Pleasence) has crash landed in this vast metropolitan ocean, placing him in clear and present danger.
With time of the essence, New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Van Cleef) is forced to take decisive action and offers a deal to former U.S Special Forces soldier Plissken (Russell), dangling the carrot of a full pardon for his past discrepancies should he return the President to him in one piece. Of course, there just has to be a catch and a neckful of infinitesimal explosives and 24-hour deadline helps him to come to a prompt decision. Our disgruntled idol is then deposited behind the iron curtain in a stealth glider, muttering under his breath. Once he touches down atop the World Trade Center, his suicide mission begins in earnest.
It doesn’t take long for him to realize that there is no time for procrastination as a quick stop off at the splendidly named Chock Full O’Nuts reminds him in no uncertain terms. Here he meets a girl (Season Hubley) and before he can weigh up whether to give her some of his own nuts, they are ambushed by crazies. Being supremely dedicated to his cause, he decides to stay frosty and leave her to perish. Aside from the freaks, delinquents, heathens, dead heads and beats, he manages to find some allies. Friendly Cabbie (Borgnine) introduces him to inside man Brain (Stanton) and his girlfriend Maggie (Barbeau) and he finds out what he is up against.
You see, if he is to stand any chance of completing this assignment he will be required to breach a rather less than idyllic urban fortress run by the tyrannical Duke of New York (Isaac). When not kicking back with his bitches, Duke can be found mooching around in his automobile of choice, a lowrider tooled to the nines with 60 watt halogens and hood-load of munitions. Snake is going to need his new model army and this perilous pursuit would be far too intimidating for most men. However, Snake Plissken is not most men. Most men cannot pull off an eye-patch, vest and combats. Most men’s breakfasts don’t comprise deadbeats and street urchins. Rigorous training has prepared him to swat such non-threats as though they are mere gnats and he is every bit prepared to take it to the Duke.
Escape From New York has one particularly significant thing in its favor and that is Russell at the very summit of his A-game. This man on a bad day is special but, provide him with an eye-patch and fully loaded Uzi, and he’ll remunerate you to the tune of box-office receipts by the bus-load. He is simply scintillating here – snarling, growling, and fiercely focused on the job at hand. Even though he is surrounded by some of the most intimidating ability the industry has to offer, he simply shrugs it off and puffs out his chest. Of course, by the time he locates the sniveling President, it’s hardly been worth the exertion and this leads to a wonderfully cynical conclusion, strongly influenced by the Watergate Scandal, and with every bit the swagger that it displayed from the very first frame.
Escape From New York really is the gift that keeps on giving. Not only does it provide us with the most iconic hero in eighties cinema, but the bare bones synthesized score by Carpenter and Howarth is my personal all-time darling. When you consider they also provided us with the theme for Halloween and their Tangerine Dream-flavored compositions have supplied the soundtrack to the youth of many adolescents, that is no small feat. Meanwhile, Cundey’s cinematography packs the streets out with foreboding and the screenplay from Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle (otherwise known as Michael Myers himself) is more than up-to-snuff and provides Russell plentiful gristle to chew on.
So how does it match up to other films from his vast oeuvre? Particularly well although, sandwiched in-between The Fog and The Thing it’s just another cracking Carpenter movie, such was the dominance of this man in his prime. Escape from New York is a seminal action flick and the fact that every lad entrenched in puberty desired only to be Snake Plissken, myself very much included. Russell proved himself to be the ultimate self-centered anti-hero and regards this as his favorite role. Coupled with Carpenter’s creative ingenuity, he breathed life into eighties cinema’s coolest customer and, long after we have all passed, Snake Plissken will still remain. That my beloved Grueheads, is one helluva legacy to leave.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Read The Thing (1982) Appraisal
Read Halloween (1978) Appraisal
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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Awesome write up! This was a great read. I love this film very much and hold it in very high regard. Great job and the background info was a cool touch.