Not to be confused with its sequel Escape from L.A., this is Escape from New York; so good they made it twice.
John Carpenter’s 1981 action/sci-fi/neo-western hybrid is set in 1997, when Manhattan has been turned into a giant maximum-security prison surrounded by big Trumpian walls. On the eve of a big Trumpian nuclear holocaust, the President (Donald Pleasence) is kidnapped en route to a world-saving peace summit and held within the Manhattan prison walls. Prisoner Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has 24 hours to save the president (and therefore the world) before the micro-explosives in his neck are detonated, turning Snake into a draft excluder.
This ticking-clock element renders the movie cheesy and nonsensical, but the simple, satirical setup is made scintillating by memorable characters (Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau and Ernest Borgnine all feature) and immersive special effects; a young James Cameron worked on the film’s matte paintings and possibly picked up a few ideas for the tech-noir look and synth score of The Terminator.
Carpenter’s compositions (both musical and visual) are brilliantly atmospheric, creating a lived-in environment that places you firmly in a satirised, dystopian version of New York (actually filmed in St. Louis, Missouri) populated by all manner of unsavoury characters; Isaac Hayes is great as a gangster whose chandelier-mounted Cadillac looks like something Liberace might drive. In an iconic role that inspired characters in both The Simpsons and Metal Gear Solid, Russell channels Clint Eastwood; a self-aware decision considering he’s playing opposite Lee Van Cleef from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and a song by Primus.
Escape from New York marks the director’s first moderate budget and he uses it ingeniously, combining weird, grimey aesthetics with top-of-the-heap escapism.