“Snake Plissken? I heard of you. I heard you were dead.”
Where do I even begin with Escape from New York? It’s just about the most perfect B-movie ever made. It’s a picture often imitated by a generation of filmmakers inspired by the vision of John Carpenter and one that will be quoted by fanboys forever.
Carpenter co-wrote Escape from New York with his long-time collaborator Nick Castle, who also played Michael Myers in the first Halloween. The screenplay captured the cynicism of the 70’s and transposed it into the burgeoning 80’s. Ironic since Escape is set in the far distant future of 1997.
Due to a severe rise in crime, a desperate government is forced to turn the island of Manhattan into a maximum security prison. They wall off the entire area and exile the worst of the worst. Terrorists hijack Air Force One and force the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) into an escape pod where he lands smack dab in the middle of a lawless Manhattan. There, he is taken prisoner by the self-proclaimed Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), who demands amnesty for all inmates.
With little choice, Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) turns to recently captured criminal by the name of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Plissken was a highly decorated Special Forces operative before being arrested for attempting to rob the Federal Reserve. Hauk offers Plissken a pardon in exchange for rescuing the President in time for a pivotal peace summit. Hauk also gives Plissken a 24-hour deadline to complete his mission before microscopic explosives implanted in Snake’s neck detonate.
Escape from New York was made during the golden age of John Carpenter when he was giving us flicks like this, The Thing, and They Live. Carpenter’s fingerprints are all over the place with his love of cinema and dark sense of humor on full display. The film is set to an infectious 80’s synth soundtrack composed and performed by Carpenter himself.
Carpenter was also able to assemble one hell of a cast with veteran tough guy Lee Van Cleef and Dr. Loomis himself Donald Pleasence at the top of the list. There’s also Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, Harry Dean Stanton as the Brain, and the buxom Adrienne Barbeau (who was Carpenter’s wife at the time) as Maggie, all of whom assist Plissken in the rescue. At one point, our hero even battles imposing pro wrestler Ox Baker, the infamous inventor of the heart punch. Of course, Escape from New York wouldn’t still be talked about over thirty years later without Kurt Russell, who sheds his image as a former Disney child actor. Russell was clearly influenced by Clint Eastwood and that’s reflected in Snake’s gruff demeanor and acerbic wit. For years, New Line Cinema developed a proposed remake with actors like Gerard Butler, Jeremy Renner, Timothy Olyphant, and Charlie Hunnam attached or rumored for the role of Snake Plissken. They may be talented thespians in their own right, but Snake Plissken was as much Kurt Russell as Kurt Russell was Snake Plissken.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Scream Factory has brought us a brand new 2K transfer made from the inter-positive of the original negative. Due to the age of the film, you shouldn’t expect Escape to match the picture quality of recent blockbusters. The transfer still sports some noticeable grain, but nothing overly detracting, unless you are a stickler. The Blu-ray is certainly a significant upgrade from the standard DVD releases.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo. Both tracks are crisp with the 2.0 version likely coming closer to the original theatrical presentation. The lossless audio does wonders for Carpenter’s score.
Disc 1 offers three audio commentary tracks. Brand new to the Collector’s Edition is a commentary track with Adrienne Barbeau and D.P. Dean Cundey and moderated by journalist Sean Clark. The other two commentaries are ported over from the 2003 Special Edition DVD. There’s one track with Producer Debra Hill and Production Designer Joe Alves and one with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. Without a doubt, the Carpenter/Russell track is a must listen as the two fall into an easy rapport.
Disc 2 contains the rest of the bonus material with five new featurettes.
Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York (14:27) takes a look at the old school FX techniques used for Escape. This includes matte paintings, camera tricks, and miniatures.
Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth (18:56) is for the die-hard audiophiles. It’s an interview with Carpenter’s collaborator on the score. Howarth talks about recording the soundtrack as well as the different album releases.
On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York (10:50) is an interview with Kim Gottlieb-Walker, who was the still photographer on the set of the film. She discusses what it was like working on the picture and the differences in set photography in the internet age.
I Am Taylor: An Interview with actor Joe Unger (8:49) is an interview with the character actor who was originally cast as Snake Plissken’s sidekick Taylor. All of Unger’s scenes were cut from the theatrical release.
My Night on Set: An Interview with filmmaker David DeCocteau (5:02) sits down with the prolific director of direct-to-video schlock as he discusses being an 18-year old production assistant on Escape.
Return to Escape from New York (23:00) is a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette presented in standard definition. This, along with the rest of the extras, is taken from the Special Edition DVD.
Rounding out the bonus disc is the deleted opening sequence with optional commentary by Carpenter and Russell. You’ll also get two trailers for Escape from New York and two photo galleries.
Film Value: 8
“You are the Duke of New York. You are A Number 1.”
John Carpenter never could recapture the magic of Escape from New York. The less said about the forgettable Escape from LA, the better. It was like catching lightning in a bottle the first time around. Shout Factory has given the cult classic a splendid presentation with new extras that will appeal to hardcore fans. The only thing missing would be interviews with Carpenter and Kurt Russell.