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Escape From New York (1981) – Carpenter countdown #1

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One of the reasons Escape from LA hurts so much to watch is how good the original is.

Concept: Kurt Russell does Clint Eastwood

It is 1997, and Manhattan has been walled in and turned into a maximum security prison. Once you go in, you don't come out. Unfortunately for the police state, US President Donald Pleasence's plane is hijacked on the way to a summit to end World War Three and crashed into the city. When police chief Lee Van Cleef goes in with his troops, it's too late: the inhabitants have got him. So he has to turn to his only other option, offering special forces hero turned bank robber Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken an amnesty if he can get the President plus a cassette tape with the secrets of nuclear fusion out in time to make the summit before it finishes. Oh, and just to make sure, Russell is injected with a pair of explosive charges which will kill him in less than 23 hours if he doesn't come back with both.

What's good: The script. It's stripped down – look at how little dialogue there is in much of the film, particularly if you take out all the people who tell Plissken they thought he was dead πŸ™‚ – but manages to have a series of memorable characters. Snake Plissken is one of the great anti-heroes, an individual in an age of conformity.

The production design. They were able to take advantage of a major fire in East St Louis which had devastated a large area of the city and left a perfect location for a film of a city abandoned to criminals. Despite having a fraction of the sequel's budget, it looks better and is more believable.

The cinematography is stunning. Dean Cundey shows he's a master of night work yet again and just look at how far back the exteriors are lit.

The performances. All of the cast are fine. Russell is clearly doing his Clint Eastwood impression and it's fun to watch, but incredibly he was not the one the studio wanted (Charles Bronson!?! or Tommy Lee Jones) and he had to be argued for.

The music.

The car. You'll know which one I mean πŸ™‚

What's not so good: The MacGuffin of the tape is a bit silly – there has to be a written copy of the speech somewhere.

There's a small pile of continuity errors, particularly around the countdown timer. Fortunately, it moves so quickly that they don't matter.

Music: Another fabulous synth score in association with Alan Howarth. It's so good, large sections were ripped off for Beverly Hills Cop II.

A few years ago, a CD with an expanded version of the soundtrack was released, with the music that was deleted from the original opening ('bank robbery') and end credits (the 'Snake Shake'). It also has dialogue extracts, but… a) not the Issac Hayes "I heard you were dead" and b) some of the tracks sound very different from the original CD release and, to my ears, the actual film soundtrack. They've been played with and not necessarily to their advantage. Real fans have both πŸ™‚ but it's increasingly hard to find the original release.

Miscellany: The introductory graphics and voice-over were added when it was realised that many of the audience didn't realise that Manhattan Island is an island!

Lots of the cast and crew had been in his earlier films. The stewardess who hijacks Airforce One was one of Laurie's friends Marion in Halloween, the punk was the ice cream seller in Assault, the medic was the person cleaning the shop at the start of The Fog which also featured the bum with the President's vital signs monitor etc etc. That's before we get to regulars like Russell, Barbeau, Pleasence, Cyphers and Atkins.

The secret service agent trying to break down the Air Force One cockpit door was Steve Ford, son of former US President Gerald Ford.

There are no computer graphics in the film – they would have been too expensive at the time. The 3D wireframes of the city were done by lining the edges of a model with tape and filming that, and the other graphics were all hand animated.

Overall: It's my list and I can have this as #1 if I want πŸ™‚ True, while it's been tremendously influential visually – think Metal Gear Solid – it didn't revitalise an entire genre like Halloween. And nothing in it is as ground breaking as the effects in The Thing or as funny as Dark Star. But it's a film where so much came together – script, cast, production design, music – so well. It's knowingly cheesy. We know Kurt Russell is channelling Clint Eastwood, and they know it, but it's played straight.

Is this a film you can only love if you were old enough to see it in the early 80s? Some reviews seem to think so, but I hope not. Like The Thing, part of the appeal is how it was done, and that will never change.

Yet another disguised Western? Well, co-writer Nick Castle says yes πŸ™‚

TL;DR Better in just about every way than the sequel, I've seen this more often than almost any other film.

Film: 5/5
DVD: 5/5

Commentary with Carpenter and Kurt Russell, plus one with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. The latter's a masterclass in making a relatively low budget film look much more expensive (the top of the World Trade Centre was a platform in the desert – they couldn't afford a sound stage to build it on!) Occasionally, the two commentaries disagree on where something was filmed, and I suspect Alves is the one who is right… There's also the original opening scene, a bank robbery, that's ok but was (rightly) deleted, and a 20-something minute look back at the film. The later DVD versions of the film have excellent picture quality – don't get an earlier release – but some of the reviews on Amazon are not at all happy with the Blu-ray version. Caveat emptor (I'm never going to get a Blu-ray player…)

The DVD I have, the later release that seems to differ only in the cover, the Blu-ray, a possibly better US Blu-ray / DVD combo, the expanded soundtrack CD, and the original CD:

Written by Ian

June 30th, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

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