John Carpenter’s widescreen compositions not only lend beauty to Escape from New York but also enhance its paranoia over (and disgust with) military-industrial complex tyranny. In a future 1997, a spike in crime leads the U.S. government to wall off Manhattan to make it a maximum-security prison for the nation’s criminals. When terrorists hijack and crash Air Force One in the Big Apple and Lee Van Cleef’s police bigwig proves unable to pull off a rescue mission, he coerces special ops agent-turned-notorious criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to infiltrate the city and rescue the kidnapped President (Donald Pleasance). It’s a shady deal with a big catch: if Snake doesn’t accomplish his goal in 23 hours (at which time the President will miss an important conference), explosive implants in his veins will kill him. Still, despite this race-against-time conceit, Carpenter’s film has a surprisingly measured pace, its set pieces choreographed with a deliberateness at odds with the frantic nature of Snake’s quest.
Escape from New York’s Orwellian alterna-America, full of grungy gangs and a badass messiah in the form of Isaac Hayes’ Duke, vaguely recalls The Warriors but its tone is its own, blending vicious tough-guy action and goofy comedy in a uniquely off-kilter manner. Through it all, Carpenter’s compositions are a marvel, his 2.35:1 frame rife with visual tensions that express shifting power dynamics, all while generating an imposing sense of consuming malevolence. His tale’s cynical portrait of a Big Brother-ish government disinterested in the lower classes, and intent on exploiting those it supposedly opposes in order to achieve its own ends, remains vigorous but crude. Yet even more than its political rage or its raft of colorful, uniformly excellent supporting players (Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine), the most potent element of Escape from New York remains Plissken, a one-eyed commando whom the magnetic Russell embodies as a sneering, gravely-voiced icon of rebel-yell machismo.