Escape from New York (1981)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes
Release date: July 10, 1981
Running time: 99 minutes
I had so much fun revisiting Big Trouble in Little China but I couldn't think of what to do next. I'll have done is action so far, and I've got a bookshelf filled with God awful horror movies just waiting for me to waste my time watching. Then I noticed this sitting on the shelf and realized I hadn't seen it in so long I barely remembered any of it. I'm so happy I took the time to revisit it because it's every bit as ridiculous as I remember.
This review is spoiler filled so if you haven’t seen it yet…
Watch this movie if: You want to see Kurt Russell infiltrate a prison island to rescue President Dr. Loomis from Chef.
We’re immediately introduced to John Carpenter’s synth score as we look into the post-apocalyptic dystopian future of…1997. World War III is nearing its end and the crime rate has risen 400%, which I understand is a lot. The United States has turned all of Manhattan into a giant walled-off prison. So it's Australia. The city is a dilapidated, rundown shithole where there are no guards, just prisoners serving life sentences and free to rape and murder and pillage as they see. So it's Detroit, Australia.
It's the only prison in the country, and like I said all the prisoners are serving life sentences. So I guess if you get caught stealing a fucking box of Pop Tarts you spend the rest of your life getting chased by Isaac Hayes? Obama's America, a decade too soon.
President Donald Pleasence is traveling on Air Force One to a three-way summit between US, Soviet Union, and China to end the war. If you don't think it makes any sense for the extremely British man to be the president of the United States, this movie is clearly not going to be for you. Pleasence has taken a break from running around suburbs screaming about the pure evil that is Michael Myers to the country into a world war. Thanks a shitload, Loomis.
The plane is hijacked by someone who is never mentioned again and who you forget even exists once her 10 seconds of screen time are up. The militant who is yelling over the PA about something we couldn't possibly know or care about crashes the plane into Manhattan. Lucky for us our President is apparently George Fuckin Jetson because he just happens to have a giant escape pod built into Air Force One.
|I met this robot maid, with this blank, pale emotionless face, and the blackest eyes... the devil's eyes|
Pleasence enters the pod with a tracking device on one wrist and a briefcase handcuffed to the other. I guess you could say...he's got his hands full right now. Review over thanks for reading.
The United States Police Force Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef and his weird Harrison Ford-esque Old Man Earring) arrives at the Command Center where he and Chief of Security Remy (Tom Atkins) receive the distress signal from Air Force One. They track the crash in beautiful 80's computer graphics and assemble a group of soldiers to investigate the crash site before any of the criminals can get to it.
The criminals got to it. When Hauk and nameless extras arrive, they find an empty escape pod, which of course means he's been taken hostage by a gang of sewer dwelling prisoners. Romero, King Shit of the inmates, saunters into the frame and tells Hauk if him and his crew of flunkies don't get back in the air in 30 seconds, the President dies. If he comes back to the island, he dies. To prove he's not bullshitting, he pulls out a bloody severed finger. 15 Minutes into the movie and the President has been kidnapped by psychopaths and lost a digit. God I love John Carpenter movies.
|I love the subtleties in his performance|
Hauk is shit outta luck so they retreat back to their base on Liberty Island. Hauk calls the Vice President and receives authorization for a rescue attempt. It's a tiny detail but I love none of the government officials having names.
So with no motive, no ransom, no idea what to do, they call on the only man for the job: Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Snake has an eye patch, gorgeous long locks of black hair, a leather jacket, a sleeveless black shirt showing off his built physique, eyes that look like a million beautiful shining stars decorating the sky in a perfect moment where he looks at you and you look at him and he talks to you until the Sun comes up and even though it's hours it seems like a moment frozen in time. This chair is ruined.
It becomes very apparent within 2 minutes of him being on screen that Snake does not give a single ounce of shit about Hauk or his problems or his President. It may be the far flung future with crazy technology (that we never see), but it is scientifically impossible for him to give less of a fuck about anything. If Jack Burton was a cheap John Wayne impression, this is a cheaper Clint Eastwood. I still love it, though.
|"I'm not a fool, Plissken." |
"Call me Snake."
Snake is a special forces Lieutenant with two purple hearts and the youngest man to be decorated by the president. He also robbed the Federal Reserve depository and has just arrived to begin serving his life sentence. Hauk offers him a deal: go in, find the President, and bring him back in 24 hours and he receives a full pardon.
He begrudgingly agrees and Tom Atkins gives him a rundown of what he’s in for and gives him a bunch of weapons, James Bond style. Snake is warned to look out for the “Crazies” who live in the subways and have complete control of the underground. I love the term "Crazies' by the way. Kurt Russell is serving a life sentence with 2 purple hearts and an eyepatch in a literal giant city prison where the British United States president has been kidnapped on the way to end a world war, but THEY'RE the crazy ones.
During his suiting up process they tell Snake they’re giving him an antitoxin that stops all bacteria and viral growth for a day. What they’re really doing, which Hauk tells him after it’s already been done, is inject two microscopic capsules directly into his arteries. In 22 hours the capsules will completely dissolve and an explosion the size of a pinhead will go off, opening both arteries. He has a day before his heart explodes in his chest, also known as the Louie Anderson Experience.
|Bob Hauk Hawks Law Bomb|
Snake's primary mission is to retrieve the briefcase handcuffed to the President. Inside is a tape recording that has to reach the Summit within 22 hours. Why they can’t just call up and go “hey he’s been fucking kidnapped, can you wait a day or two” is beyond me. China must have tickets to the fuckin Rockets game or something I don't know.
All we know about the tape is it contains some stuff about nuclear fusion and honestly I don't care to know any more than that and they don't care to tell us. Hauk tells Snake the capsules can’t be defused until within 15 minutes of their detonation as an insurance policy of sorts that Snake doesn’t abandon the mission, and for some reason Snake believes this. If he returns with the President and the tape, Hauk will have the charges neutralized with X-rays. Don’t worry about the logistics here.
“When I get back I’m gonna kill you"
Snake lands atop the World Trade Center in a piece of shit little glider plane. He wanders the streets in search of the pod and passes numerous people, not a single one of which stops to take a second glance at the man with an eyepatch and a machine gun. When he reaches the pod he gets a reading from the President’s Life Alert bracelet which leads him to the basement of a theater. At this theater a bunch of men in dresses are performing a musical on stage while Ernest Borgnine smiles and bobs his head jovially. That’s a sentence I have to live with for the rest of my life.
In the basement he sees a man beating the shit out of someone wearing the bracelet. Snake kicks the man out of the way to find a crazy homeless man wearing it. Realizing all he found was two homeless men going at it like they’re under a pier in the Jersey Shore, he heads back to the streets, wondering how he’s going to find the President before his heart explodes in his chest.
While on the street he’s attacked by Crazies. And I do mean attacked. They come from every alley, every corner, they even come out of the sewers. It’s some serious zombie shit. He hides in an abandoned diner where he meets a young woman. She explains the Crazies are out of food, and they’re very hungry. She recognizes Snake and instantly puts the moves on him. It’s set up like ok, here’s the mandatory piece of eye candy that will follow him around the rest of the movie, so they'll wait in the diner until the Crazies are off the streets and NOPE. Crazies break through the floorboards and drag her down and she’s fucking dead.
|If you open a new tab and watch Thriller right now I'll understand|
Snake escapes through a back alley where he’s rescued by good ol’ Grandpa Borgnine. He’s “Cabbie” the cab driver. Clever. He pulls up in his yellow cab blaring swing music with a big smile on his face. Cabbie also recognizes Snake for some reason. Snake hops in his cab and Cabbie throws a Molotov cocktail at the Crazies before driving off. Let me reiterate THAT SWEET OLD MAN BURNED THOSE MEN ALIVE.
Snake asks Cabbie where the President is and Cabbie tells him the Duke has him. The Duke of New York. A number one. The big man. Snake demands to see him so Cabbie takes him to see Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), the Duke’s informant. Brain is the third person to recognize Snake and tell him he thought he was dead. Unfortunately for Brain, Snake remembers him too. Brain ran out on him on a previous heist, and Snake is none too thrilled to see his trifling ass again.
In a hail mary attempt to keep Snake from splattering his brains all over the wall, Brain makes it clear he’s the only one who knows exactly where the President is being held. He tells Snake about the Duke's plan, which is to use the President as a hostage/human shield as they traverse the 69th Street bridge, which leads to a 50 foot wall. On the other side of that wall is sweet, sweet freedom.
The problem with the bridge is it’s layered with mines. Brain has the only map with the specific layout, which was mapped out by a guy who made it all the way across - and then was shot dead by guards. And the Duke just so happens to want that map right now, as he and an entourage arrive just as Snake, Cabbie, Brain, and Brain’s boo Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau's cleavage) set out to retrieve the President. And when I say he arrives, he fucking arrives.
|HELLO THERE CHILDREN|
Isaac Hayes rolls up in a chandelier mounted Cadillac with a disco ball hanging from the rear view mirror. He emerges from the car wearing jeans, a military jacket, and a cowboy hat. He looks like a black Captain Crunch. He’s General George Washington (Carver).
Brain knows if Duke finds out he’s working with Snake he’s dead, so they steal a car and haul ass to Duke’s compound while he’s preoccupied. They’re forced to drive through Broadway, which just means a bunch of gang members line up on either side of the car and throw bricks at it. The Duke is the only one with a gun, so the violent gang warfare is less drive-bys and more throwing rusty cans and killing your rivals with tetanus. They barely escape because of course they do there’s still 40 minutes of movie left.
Snake finds the President, who’s being held captive in an abandoned railroad car in the remains of Grand Central Station. There's 2 men protecting him. Snake takes out the first one easily but the second is able to get a shot off with a crossbow and hit him in the leg with an arrow. Snake returns the favor by throwing a knife straight into Lo Pan's head. He hobbles over to the President and unties him. And let me say right here and now that I will suck a dick on Christmas morning before I make a “he took an arrow to the knee” joke.
|It's all in the reflexes|
Snake is limping after getting hit, but is still outrunning Old Man Pleasence. They’re jumped by the Duke’s gang. Brain sold Snake out. Again. Duke tells Snake he’s heard of him and thought he was dead, just like every other named character in this movie, and knocks him out cold.
The next day Duke is in his compound. He’s got President handcuffed to the wall in a crucifix pose and is shooting all around him while making him repeat “You are Duke of New York. You are A number one.” And let me tell you, hearing a scared Donald Pleasence recite those lines is magical. Duke shoots open the briefcase (which yes, is still handcuffed to him) and Romero pockets the cassette tape.
The Crazies leave a ransom note in the briefcase and set it out for the police to recover. They want complete amnesty for all prisoners in exchange for the President, and “no bullshit or he’s dead.”
Somewhere else in the compound, Snake wakes up shirtless. Oh yeah.
|Oh fuck yeah|
He’s led to an arena where he’s won the opportunity to fight to the death against a giant monster of a man played by Ox Baker. I bring up his real name because of this fun little piece of trivia
He gained notoriety in 1970 after giving a "heart punch" to opponent Alberto Torres. Torres was rushed to the hospital where he died. It was later determined that Torres had apparently entered the ring with a ruptured pancreas.
They fight to the death with trash can lids as shields and nail studded bats in a Thunderdome-esque arena. Two men enter, one man leaves. The fight ends abruptly when Snake nails him right in the back of the god damn head with a nail-bat (that's what I'm calling it. Don't care). It’s completely out of nowhere. One second it's the typical "oh no the bad guy knocked his shield out of his hand, how's he gonna get out of this jam" and then next thing you know dude’s just got a nail in his skull. God I love this movie.
Meanwhile, Brain and Maggie trick Romero into letting them see the President. Romero is wearing Cabbie’s hat, which he received in a trade. This comes up later I promise, why else would I include it. Romero catches on that he’s being lied to, so Brain and Maggie shoot him and escape with the President. I'd spent most of this movie wondering why nobody just shoots that weird looking fuck right on the spot and I swear to God at this part of the movie I wrote in my notes “Why don’t they just kill this guy - oh, nevermind.”
|Donald Pleasence IS J. Edgar Hoover|
Snake notices one of the random gang members stole the tracer off his wrist, so he grabs him and presses the button to alert Hauk. Right after this, Duke learns Brain has escaped with the President, and he rounds up the entire gang to chase them down. Snake slips away and catches up to Brain, Maggie, and the President on the roof of the World Trade Center. Unfortunately some gang members push his shitty little glider off the roof, so they have no way out. Except the 69th Street bridge.
|YES! YES! YES!|
A small tidbit I love is someone back at the base asks Hauk how he knows it was Snake that pressed the button. Hauk talks down to him like a child and tells him Snake is the only one who knew about the safety catch.
|IT'S JUST A BIG BRIGHT RED FUCKIN BUTTON|
They try to escape in Brain’s car but it won’t start. They pop the hood and there’s a literal human being sitting in there with a crossbow.
|Surprise, Mother Fucker|
Duke was waiting for him, but they create a diversion and run, and the guy in the car an inch away apparently forgets how to shoot an arrow because they escape unharmed. Cabbie is waiting for them outside but he’s missing his hat. What he does have, however, is the tape recording. Why would he trade his hat for some random tape recording? How would he even know Romero had i-I don't care because Snake’s got 23 minutes left to finish the mission as he begins to drive down the bridge. He pockets the tape and keeps it for himself until they get out of this pickle.
Duke gives chase in his chandelier cadillac over the mine covered bridge. Duke isn’t close enough to follow their exact movements but apparently he just knows how to traverse the bridge through telepathy. Snake and The Gang hit a mine and the cab is cut perfectly in half by the explosion. Everyone makes it out - except Cabbie. A moment of silence for sweet Grandpa Borgnine.
|In the aaaaaarms oooooof an aaaangeeeeel|
They keep running on foot while Brain shouts orders from the map. In something I still don’t understand, they’re all running and he shouts at them to bank left. Everyone else stays on the right and he goes left and hits a mine. He’s got the fucking map, why did they all ignore him and survive? It doesn’t make any sense. Brain does the same thing we do every night, Pinky - explode in a fine red mist in front of your wife when freedom is right within your sights. It's so close you can almost touch it, but even if you somehow make it across you'll spend the rest of your life full of regret, knowing if you had just said something, just found that courage deep down to say something, he would have made it with you, and you wouldn't wake up every morning looking at the other side of the bed and seeing nothing but emptiness. NARF
But Isaac Hayes is dressed like a sea captain so who cares about those little contrivances. They always say the chef is the most important man on the boat. Have you ever even SEEN Under Siege?
Maggie refuses to leave Brain's side and tries to hold off Blacktain Crunch by standing still in the middle of the bridge and shooting at him with a handgun. This ends as well as you’d think, as Duke runs her the fuck over. He’s forced to follow Snake and President on foot, as her giant tits totaled his car.
Snake and President reach the wall and the guards raise the President to safety. Duke catches up before Snake can be lifted, so this movie reaches the climax so many other movies wish they could ascend to: Kurt Russell and Isaac Hayes have a hand to hand fight on a mine covered bridge in a giant city-prison. Snake is able to get away and starts to climb the wall. Duke gets to his feet, aims at Snake, and GETS RIDDLED TO SHIT BY PRESIDENT PLEASENCE. He unloads an entire sub machine clip into him while screaming “You’re A number one! you’re the Duke!” It’s absolutely amazing. It might be the greatest moment ever committed to film. It's probably not, but it might be.
Snake is lifted to safety and the explosives are deactivated with seconds to spare (of course).
Back at Liberty Island, President prepares to give a televised speech. He doesn’t even make it to the conference so what’s the fucking point of this entire convoluted bullshi-whatever. He thanks Snake for saving him but it’s a pretty underwhelming thank you because he’s getting powdered and made up for TV by his handlers. Snake asks how he feels about the numerous men and women who died saving him, but he gives a half-assed “This nation appreciates their sacrifice” bullshit stock answer, then cuts him off because he’s going on the air in two and a half minutes. This really pisses Snake off. When Snake found him he was a trembling, stuttering, helpless captive, but now that he’s outside the prison he’s your generic self-centered asshole politician.
Snake receives his pardon from Hauk and searches the deepest reaches of his heart to not make good on his promise and murder him right there in front of God and everybody. Because maybe they could make a sequel 15 years later. Hauk offers him a job and insists “we’d make a hell of a team, Snake.” Snake looks him dead in the eyes and says “The name’s Plissken” and limps off, probably from the weight of his gigantic penis.
President starts giving his speech and offers the content of the tape. He puts the tape in, presses play, and the American Bandstand music starts playing. Snake switched the tape with one of Cabbie’s. Snake walks off into the night tearing apart the nuclear fusion tape. THE ONE THING THAT WILL SAVE MANKIND FROM NUCLEAR ANNIHILATION. WE’RE ALL FUCKING DEAD, SNAKE.
|Like I could stay mad at you|
I love this stupid movie. Kurt Russell has said this is his favorite movie of his and Snake is his favorite character, and I can see why. It's a fun mix of dystopia and over the top nonsense. It has the thinnest plot possible, and even then it falls apart when you give it any thought. But who gives a shit, Kurt Russell is Solid Snake before Solid Snake existed fighting off zombie homeless and continuing the streak of movies where he's the protagonist but doesn't save jack shit.