Escape from New York is an 80s action-thriller that suffers from the usual action film conventions like having wooden one-dimensional characters and by trying to send a message, but not doing anything to enforce, or even determine, its message. I think it is safe to say that in order to get cheap pleasure out of a film it must be fun. Well, this film is not very fun, despite all it has going for it. Kurt Russell was an action movie superstar all throughout the 80s and John Carpenter had earned his spot as one of the more bankable directors. Along with that, it is set in barren, dystopian Manhattan, so the scenery is without a doubt worth checking out. A premise that includes nuclear war threats, soaring crime rates, saving the president, war with the Soviet Union, a giant maximum security prison, pretty much the entire idea of the film, is definitely going to attract attention and develop a dedicated, very American, following.
How does any professional filmmaker make the mistake of creating an action film with this potential caliber and forget to add any entertaining action, whatsoever? No good gunfights, a modest body count, and no character to steal the show. Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, isn't a very strong character either. But the star power and slickness of Russell really do shine through at times, he really did have it going on in the 80s. That is largely due to his very memorable friendship with John Carpenter. Donald Pleasance also makes an appearance, but his addition is very questionable. Giving such a talented actor such a lousy role is distracting when you have seen those talents, and then you see them wasted.
Someone needs to inform Mr. Carpenter that he has a true gift for atmosphere. He never fails at creating atmospheric tension in all of his films, in this film he has New York City to work with. Never has Manhattan looked so haunting. It seems he unconsciously reveals his creative strengths in this film more often then he does on purpose. For a country-wide maximum security prison there seems to be a real lack of...criminals. Also there is an abundance of...characters. A huge prison located in a section of a major city, and there aren't that many criminals there, and most of them look like they are there for either petty theft or drunken misconduct. Harold "Brain" Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton) is one of the few important characters while having the appearance of a isolated from the world office worker.
Out of all the types of criminals this film picks the least interesting looking ones. "Brain's" sole purpose is to live up to his nickname and find ways out, so I guess his appearance makes sense, even if it is unfortunate. Then there is Isaac Hayes' The Duke of New York City. With a name like that he better be something special, too bad he isn't. We never learn anything about his past, so, like for just about every character in the film, we must got by his appearance and actions. All the Duke turns out to be is a very cliched character who loves to toot his own horn and abuse his power. That is your ultimate villain? What a shame. With saying that, it doesn't make much sense that a place crawling with violent criminals who would stab you in the back with the food you give them would even be able to have just one man as the head honcho.
Like many Carpenter films, the looks and ideas of Escape from New York can be very appealing, but the material just doesn't measure up. Kurt Russell's presence doesn't save his character who leaves the faintest of glows by never doing anything worth talking about, other than killing a white trash man in tights and saving an immature, worthless president. In a span of ten minutes, four of the most important characters in this film are killed and I just didn't care. Not one bit. In 70s style the film ends in a very anti-American way, but that ends up being a real bright spot and a nice shot at "the man." In the end, though, the real shot is at the patience and attention span of the viewers.