Back in 1988, the crime rate in the United States increased by four hundred percent and New York City was cordoned off by a huge wall, turning it into a massive prison. Now, the year is 1997 and the worst criminals in the country end up incarcerated there, but so has a very important person. Air Force One has been hijacked by a terrorist who is flying the plane into New York with the President (Donald Pleasence) aboard, forcing him to use the emergency escape pod as the aircraft crashes. Now the authorities need to find the President before a summit of world leaders takes place, with the fate of the planet in the balance...
Escape from New York was writer (with Nick Castle) and director John Carpenter's biggest production to that time, yet funnily enough was so grimy and murky-looking that it didn't really appear to be, with one garbage-strewn street seeming very much like another. It looked like post-apocalyptic science fiction as we never see anything of the world outside the city and the security complex guarding it, and was influential on an indulgently cynical genre that would grow throughout the decade, although usually in lower budget approximations.
It takes about half an hour for the story to really get going, which can be frustrating if you know the plot beforehand and are impatient for the action to start. When the President is captured by one of the big bosses in the prison, his men make it plain that they want something in return for his safe release, but the security representative Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) decides to send his own man in to perform a rescue, not only of the leader of the free world but of the vital cassette tape he is holding.
The man he dispatches is Snake Plissken (Whisperin' Kurt Russell), replete with eye patch and bad attutude, a criminal who will receive a full pardon if he complies - and if he doesn't succeed, two charges injected into his neck will kill him in twenty-two hours. Faced with Hobson's Choice, Snake takes a glider into New York and lands on top of the World Trade Center, just one of the many ways that the film looks so dated now, but then, it's easy to get the future wrong. Of course, the mission won't be as easy as dropping in, saving the President and popping back out again.
With deference to the Western genre he loves, Carpenter included cult actors best known for their work in the field, not only Van Cleef but Ernest Borgnine as the comparitively goodnatured (for a Borgnine character) cabbie who ferries Snake around town, and Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, the man who is smart enough to see a way out for him and his sidekick Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) now that Snake is here. Escape from New York has a great idea as its jumping off point, but Carpenter doesn't do much with it, disappointingly leaving the action to by the numbers fist fights, gunfights and car chases. His cast hold the interest, however, and it has a neatly ironic ending - plus it's better than the sequel, the over-the-top Escape from L.A. Music by Carpenter.
Skillful American writer-director of supense movies, often in the science fiction or horror genres. Comedy Dark Star and thriller Assault on Precinct 13 were low budget favourites, but mega-hit Halloween kick-started the slasher boom and Carpenter never looked back.