Remember September: Respectful Reel Review #17 — Escape from New York (1981)


Escape From New York




Dystopian / Science Fiction, Action


Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Charlie Cyphers, Season Hubley, and Tom Atkins


John Carpenter


In a future with out-of-control crime, Manhattan island has been established as a maximum security prison without guards, and when the President of the United States’ plane crashes in Manhattan only a ruthless, one-eyed, convicted felon is deemed capable of rescuing the President from an almost certain torturous death.


The world’s greatest leader is a hostage in the most dangerous place on Earth. Now only the deadliest man alive can save him.

1997. New York City is now a maximum security prison. Breaking out is impossible. Breaking in is insane.

New York City has Become the Only Maximum Security Prison for the Entire Country. Once You go In, You don’t Come Out… Until Today.

New York is a disease. Meet the cure.


With the onset of an almost crippling crime wave amid a war that has pit the Soviet Union and China versus the United States, the entire island of Manhattan has become a maximum grade prison complete with 50 foot walls, mined bridges, and waters patrolled by helicopters.

In 1997, the President John Harker (Donald Pleasance) was on the way to a peace summit when his plane is hijacked. The Secret Service agent attaches a tracking bracelet to the President before he is placed in an escape pod that is jettisoned before the plane crashes in Manhattan. The escape pod also crashes on the island, but the President survives.

When an attempted rescue is foiled by one of the crime bosses on the island called Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) realizes that a former special forces soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has been convicted of bank robbery. He offers Plissken a pardon if he manages to rescue Harker before the summit closes. As added incentive, Plissken is injected with a micro-explosive that will go off in 22 hours.

Using a stealth glider, Plissken barely lands on the World Trade Center. Very quickly Snake follows the tracker only to find it on the wrist of a senile old person. Plissken immediately calls Hauk to tell him that the President is dead, but Hauk forces Plissken to continue the search.

Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) is a little star struck when he meets Snake. He utters the recurring line in this movie, “I heard you were dead.” Cabbie takes him to Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) a brilliant chemist that has established a refinery that provides fuel for the working vehicles on the island and his main squeeze. Brain is a former associate of Snake, so he tells Plissken that Duke plans to lead a mass exodus over the Queensboro Bridge with the President as a human shield.

Snake forces Maggie and Brain to lead him to Duke’s hideout in Grand Central Terminal, but even though he finds the President, he is captured. Snake is “invited” to face Slag in a deathmatch. Maggie and Brain figure out where the glider is located and think they can find a way to rescue the President to receive the pardon. I do not reveal spoilers so I think I will stop here. If you like how this sounds you should watch it. It is currently available for free on Daily Motion and HBO Max.


Clearly, if you are a follower of the blog, you are aware that Respectful Reel Reviews are only made for movies I really love. When the Beard and I decided to have a Remember September month, I knew I wanted to cover some touchstone, seminal works that were fundamental to my youth. There are so many cool things about this movie that you should probably step back, because I am about to gush.

Let us just take for a moment the cast. Now, I know that a good cast does not necessarily mean a good film, but I think it helps. Lee Van Cleef, Tom Atkins, Charlie Cyphers are all leads in other movies. In this movie, they are extras, well-acting extras but extras nonetheless. Tom Atkins and Charlie Cyphers are members of the Halloween franchise started by . . . (drumroll, please) you guessed it — John Carpenter and Debra Hill.

Add Donald Pleasance (another Halloween alum, I mean Dr. Loomis!!!), Kurt Russell, and Adrienne Barbeau and you have three actors that made multiple movies with John Carpenter. Obviously, there was chemistry there. I mean, Adrienne Barbeau married the man.

At the risk of sounding pervy, in 1981 when this movie was released, I was 16 and very much interested in women’s cleavage. Adrienne Barbeau had a very impressive cleavage. It was a major selling point. I have grown to be an adult that has a more refined way to relate to women that is nowhere near as reductive, however I confide that back then, it was one of my joys related to this movie.

The plot is fun and moves quickly. There is very little extraneous narrative. The action set pieces are memorable. The blocking of shots is done professionally. In the action scenes, Carpenter opts for long shots instead of close ups, which he prefers during the more intimate expositional moments. The set design has you believing that he is filming in New York instead of St. Louis.

Okay, so you must be able to tell that I love this movie. Are there any negatives about this movie? Well, there are some videogame special effects that are included in this film that for the time were considered state-of-the-art, but really have not aged well. The atmospherics of dark lighting are used to hide the fact that this is a low budget movie, but the trade-off is that you get a gritty feel for Manhattan that New Yorkers recognize even when New York is prosperous. Also, James Cameron is one of the special effects designers in this movie, so. . . no. I have very few complaints about this movie.

I love this movie, and I freely admit my nostalgia bias. However, I have watched this movie with all three of my sons and they are jaded millennials (one of them even graduated from film school.) They love this movie, too.

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