People who lived in ’80s New York—I wasn’t one of them—often profess a grouchy fondness for it. Urban blight, crime in the streets and on the subways, a crumbling economic infrastructure: You earned a badge of honor by surviving it all. Those of us who came later, once it was safer and more manageable, will never quite understand the frisson.
But watching John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape From New York —which plays for a week at the IFC Center beginning July 19, in a new, high-def digital format that preserves the movie’s original, gorgeous griminess—even a come-lately can sort of get it. In Carpenter’s scrappy action allegory, set in the terrible future of 1997, American crime has escalated so drastically that the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison filled with scumbags and assorted ne’er-do-wells. When a slogan-spouting revolutionary kidnaps the president (a milquetoasty Donald Pleasance) and whisks him off to that godforsaken hellhole known as Noo Yawk, Police Commissioner Hauk (a marvelously no-nonsense Lee Van Cleef) drafts a one-eyed mercenary into service, first injecting him with twin capsules that will explode in his carotid arteries if he hasn’t completed his mission in 24 hours.
That soldier of fortune in the eyepatch is Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken, and he doesn’t need the additional kaboom factor—he’s hot enough as it is, and as lean as the picture around him. Carpenter doesn’t mess around: Escape is a crackling relic from the days when movies didn’t need heaps of expository dialogue, plots layered with overcomplicated details, and elaborate multiple endings.
So many action movies today seem desperate to prove how many ideas a filmmaker has; Escape is whittled down to the crude essentials, and its visuals are key. The landscape of this futureworld New York is burnt-out and artfully underlit. (Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey shot most of the movie far from the real Manhattan, in a broke-down-and-busted East St. Louis.) But its poverty and despair aren’t insurmountable. When Isaac Hayes, as the villainous kingpin known as the Duke, shows up, it’s in a pimped-out Cinderella carriage, a Cadillac Fleetwood with tinkling chandeliers mounted on the hood and a disco ball dangling from the rearview mirror. You know the Duke has arrived.
And then there’s Russell, strutting about in unabashed semi-shirtlessness, saving the world second and his own ass first. Snake Plissken is clearly a man with a past, but we don’t know a whit about it. (What’s with that last name? Was his dad a suit salesman in Queens?) Escape From New York was Carpenter’s response to Watergate, a stripped-down tone poem of unblinking disillusionment wrapped in an exploitation package. But its nihilism is the cheerful kind. Snake Plissken may be a fictional character, but he’s also a true New York folk hero. Plissken doesn’t just occupy Wall Street, he owns it—though in body language only. His New York truly belongs to the people, in all their sweaty, crabby, in-a-hurry awesomeness.