Film * John Carpenter * City Jail * 1981
Escape from New York is reminiscent of the Mad Max movies (well, aside from the first) in that it’s very stylish, very cool, but when it comes time for me to say something about it I’m at a bit of a loss. Like, hmm. Oh! Isaac Hayes has the sickest car in this movie. It has fuckin’ chandeliers on the hood, like what? The main guy’s name is Snake. He has an eyepatch. He runs around shirtless and shoots things and is the namesake for the main guy in Metal Gear Solid. Ernest Borgnine is in this movie and how do you not love Ernest Borgnine? Unless, I suppose, you’re one of his five ex-wives. Well, regardless, he’s super dead. Anyway, Escape from New York is an exceptionally fun time and you should totally watch it. Oh, right. The rest of the article.
This film hails from the era of American history in which crime was actually A Thing. I’m not here to downplay the personal tragedies of contemporary crime victims, but as a trackable statistic, crime is way, way down in this country as a whole. Escape from New York was released in 1981 at a time when the crime rate had been steadily climbing for the entirety of the previous decade, and would continue to rise to a blood-soaked crescendo in the early 1990’s. And I don’t care what the current presidential administration so desperately wants you to believe, the crime rate right now isn’t even close to what it was then. Case in point: the premise of this ridiculous movie.
According to a quick exposition card at the onset of the movie, in 1988 the crime rate has risen 400%. That’s a lot of percents! In response to this terrible epidemic of antisocial behavior, the authorities respond in the only rational, humane way possible. They evict everyone from Manhattan, build a massive wall around it, and make all the criminals live there. No guards, no doctors, no nothin. Kill or die, motherfuckers! So now New York is a maximum security prison and the only way out is death. As the movie begins, some Communist terrorists manage to hijack Airforce One. There’s an uncomfortable moment where I was SURE they were going to crash the plane into the World Trade Center, but they don’t. Instead the plane crashes into some neighborhood, whatever, but the President manages to escape. Alas, he’s taken hostage by the baddies.
Meanwhile, Snake is about to be tossed into city-jail because he robbed a bank. He has an eyepatch and is very surly. Also, because it’s an action movie, he has some backstory in which he was special forces/super armyman or whatever. The important thing is, Snake has the skills to extract the president. So a deal is made. Save the president, you get a pardon. Oh, and you have to do it in 24 hours because of the plot. Here’s a giant watch which does nothing but count down from 24 hours, also a blood-drug that will explode your arteries if you’re late. I think? It should be abundantly clear by now to not come to me for accurate plot summaries of films. Anyway, Kurt Russell – I mean Snake – then rides a glider and lands on top of the WTC and begins his search for the president.
We quickly find out that the President Pleasence has been kidnapped by Isaac Hayes. Why? Because he’s the bad guy. Escape from New York is a film of broad strokes. It’s far more about the chandeliers adorning the hood of a ’77 Cadillac than it is social commentary. The Duke is rad. He is, in fact, A-Number One. The Duke’s only agenda is to be awesome. For his part, he would rather be awesome in the outside world than stuck in a bombed-out version of NYC. I don’t even think Snake holds this against him very much, even though he spends most of the film getting beat up by The Duke’s henchmen. After all, Snake’s only there because he was gang-pressed by The Man to do their dirty biz and rescue the president (at the cost of the lives of everyone else on Air Force One).
John Carpenter really outdid himself in depicting New York as a dilapidated, decayed ruin. The setting is my favorite part of the film. After all, in 1981 it wouldn’t have been crazy to assume that’s the way New York was headed. I mean without the walled-off prison bit. That’s dumb. But for the actual city of New York to continue spiraling into chaos and despair? We have an actual, real life example of that in Detroit. It was a distinct possibility. Escape from New York serves as a possible outcome for a city that has grown beyond governance. Since the film isn’t really interested in subtlety or commentary, there is of course no mention of specific politics or even a cause-and-effect statement. No, the crime rate continued going up and based on that alone, here’s a fucked-up New York.
This, if you’re me, begs all sorts of questions about how the wider world operates. And of course, the movie has no interest in answering any of them. That would distract from Snake doing cool-guy shit. Or that creepy weirdo who hisses at people instead of using his big-boy words. Or that one chick’s huge knockers. Or Ernest Borgnine being wacky. Still. Is the rest of America a crime-free wonderland? Or is it an authoritarian nightmare locked in eternal warfare with Russia and China? Because that’s what it seems like, based on the political situation the president is supposed to be saving. That’s the McGuffin, by the way, some hot banger of a mixtape that’s going to end the war and bring peace and prosperity to the American people. The same tape that Snake steals and destroys because fuck the police, am I right?
One of the problems with ignoring depth or commentary is that Escape from New York ends up not making a lick of sense. From what I can gather, Snake used to work for The Man. Then things went bad for him, and he turned to a life of crime in order to live/feel like a functioning member of society/everyone else is doing it/register disgust with the ruling powers. So he gets tossed into city jail, which he is clearly not a fan of. That said, it’s not like he’s out here protesting his innocence. This is definitely not a ‘our actually pure of heart hero was wrongfully imprisoned’ situation. The only reason Snake helps is to save his own life. Once that’s assured, fuck everyone else in the world. Since we have no real grasp of the McGuffin mixtape – what’s on it, what does it mean, why is it important – all we get a clear sense of is that President Pleasence is a douchebag and fuck him. I suppose, all told, that’s all that’s important. Snake is a cool guy. He knows best.