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Monday, October 4, 2010

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK [Blu-Ray] -- DVD review by porfle

(Blu-Ray comments by Ian Friedman)

After the gritty shoot-em-up thrills of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and the terrifying suburban horror of HALLOWEEN, writer-director John Carpenter's inner geek went all out with this delirious conglomeration of all the comic books, pulp sci-fi yarns, Clint Eastwood movies, and other deeply-ingrained influences he had rolling around in his fevered mind.  When I saw it for the first time on the big screen, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) made a direct connection with my own inner geek, and I mainlined it like heroin from the first notes of that incredibly cool theme music to the last royal screw-over at the fadeout. 

In between, of course, there's the story of how the USA's crime rate has skyrocketed so quickly (in the future world of 1997) that the whole island of Manhattan has been turned into a permanent dumping ground for criminals, from which there is no parole or escape.  When terrorists hijack Air Force One and the President himself ends up as a hostage in the big rotten apple, America's most notorious criminal, "Snake" Plissken, is recruited to go in and rescue him.  He's offered parole for the job, but as an added incentive, tiny explosives are injected into his neck which will explode unless deactivated before the time limit expires. 

Hard to believe now, but back in '81 nobody took former child actor and Disney star Kurt Russell seriously as an action hero.  His casting could've been a joke if he hadn't managed to pull off his tough-hombre character so well, but long before the film is over we've bought into his hard-as-nails mumbling-Eastwood impression.  With his eyepatch, shaggy mullet, week-old beard, skin-tight pants, black leather boots, and terminally bad attitude, he's a Marvel Comics character come to life.

If the film looks "cheesier" today than it did back then, it's a finely-aged cheese.  Working with his biggest budget yet, Carpenter opens with an impressive shot of the captured Air Force One flying over the heavily-guarded prison wall and into the heart of the city.  Plissken's own entrance into New York via glider, where he lands atop the late, lamented World Trade Center, is less convincing but has its own atmospheric visual charms which are enhanced by the baleful strains of Debussy's "Engulfed Cathedral." 

Not much in the way of SPFX follows, but the rest of the story is enriched by imaginative set design which, while not really taking full advantage of the New York location, is a well-realized and pleasingly grungy dystopia.  The dark skyline with its lifeless skyscrapers, dotted here and there by campfires, makes for an evocative backdrop to the action as Plissken fights his way through brutal gangsters, animalistic marauders, and other freaky denizens of the ruined city to get to the President. 

In addition to breakthrough action hero Russell, the rest of the cast is about as good as it gets.  As Hauk, the guy who offers Plissken amnesty and sends him on his suicide mission, the legendary Lee Van Cleef is there to cool things up considerably.  More cult favorites, Harry Dean Stanton and statuesque tough-babe Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter's wife at the time) are on hand as Brain and Maggie. 

Brain works for New York's feared gang boss The Duke (a nicely-cast Isaac Hayes) with the entire New York Public Library as his crib, and the gorgeous Maggie is his fringe benefit as well as a capable and devoted bodyguard.  Hollywood mainstay Ernest Borgnine gets to indulge his penchant for big acting as Cabbie, who drives the last checkered cab in New York and always shows up in time for a fast getaway.  And in a brief cameo, Russell's own then-current wife Season Hubley appears as "The Girl in Chock Full O'Nuts."

As the American President, most critics considered very-British genre fave Donald Pleasance to be dreadfully miscast.  Which he is, but who cares?  They said he was miscast as Blofeld, too.  Chained to the wall as target practice for The Duke while the prisoners await release in exchange for their hostage, Pleasance grovels wonderfully and overacts with the same intensity as he did as Dr. Loomis in HALLOWEEN.  "You're the Duuuke!" he's prompted to scream obsequiously between gunshots.  "AAAA-Number Oooone!"  (What ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK fan hasn't intoned these immortal words at one time or another in full Donald Pleasance mode?)

After a series of so-so action setpieces which include Snake having to fight for his life in the wrestling ring, the chase is on with Snake, Brain, Maggie, and Cabbie trying to make it across a heavily-mined Brooklyn Bridge before The Duke catches up to them.  (His white Cadillac is adorned by two blazing chandeliers on either side of the hood.)  It's one of the most fun sequences Carpenter ever filmed, with the added suspense of Plissken's neck bombs ticking down their last seconds as he makes for the outer wall with his ever-dwindling gang of cohorts, including the President, in tow. 

With this new two-disc Blu-Ray and DVD combo pack from 20-Century Fox and MGM, the film makes a wonderful transition to Blu-ray. John Carpenter's gritty classic maintains all the grain that the film has always had (due to both aesthetic choices and its low budget nature). The level of detail now available to home viewers brings an even greater clarity to the film's picture, allowing us to see all the details in the model work and design that went into creating the world of 1997 New York. The lossless audio sounds crisp and clear with no distortion or hissing and a surround track is included for those without DTS systems.

Fans of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK will no doubt relish the chance to see this giddy-fun blowout of a sci-fi action flick again, while those who have never seen it before owe it to themselves to check it out.  It's the movie that made Kurt Russell a star all over again, and a prime example of John Carpenter at his pulpy, geeky, do-no-wrong best.

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