Turning New York City into a prison is a plan straight out of a budget knock-off of James Bond, and not entirely a bad idea. Johnny English hashed out the logistics of this plan some decades after John Carpenter released Escape from New York, but the masterminding of such a plan is doable. Beyond the realm of reasonable responsibility, maybe, but the terrifying notion of prisoners living together on an island with no rules presents a survival of the fittest scenario. An interesting premise indeed, combining the talents of Carpenter and leading man Kurt Russell as a former soldier bargains for his release with a near-impossible rescue mission.
Snake Plissken is the quintessential action hero. Those pangs of 80s brutality and masculinity feverishly thrown into his name, persona and dialogue. A quintessentially cool character, or at least what people thought was cool four decades ago. Unkempt hair, leather jacket, eyepatch, all the tropes of a hardened criminal with experience behind him. Russell plays this with conviction, paired nicely with Carpenter’s keen vision of a hellscape dystopia, an island made up solely of criminals. Worldbuilding is integral to Escape from New York, and the dusty, bombed streets of New York make for ample background. Not incredible or vividly entertaining, but they get the job done.
Accomplishing these basic moments is integral, but handled rather poorly. Nothing stands out through these grim, prison-like streets other than the rubble and broken structures. A jet-black bandage around the eye of the protagonist is all that sets him out from the manic, crazed villains that lurk in the shadows. The depths of depravity are shown, a former city filled with the dreck of human scum, but it all feels a little underwhelming at times. No character feels overwhelming interesting, but Carpenter does craft a few great scenes of action-based fun. Really, that’s all Escape from New York needs to do, offer a couple of engaged scenes of Russell looking like a hero, and that he does.
Maybe that’s all an audience need. The quintessential tropes of the hero are proudly presented to us through a film that could and should be much, much better. Great supporting performances, a brooding leading man to hold it all together and some direction that never takes us too far to the campy or hardcore extremes the film finds itself haggling between. Escape from New York is certainly fun, but it lacks variety at times, leading to a stagnating second act that just about recovers itself in its resolution.