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John Carpenter
Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Season Hubley, Harry Dean Stanton
Writing Credits:
John Carpenter, Nick Castle

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

A thrilling landmark film that jolts along at a breakneck pace, Escape From New York leapt to cult status with high-octane action, edge-of-your-seat suspense and a mind-blowing vision of lone warrior Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) battling his way out of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan.

Box Office:
Budget $75 million.
Opening Weekend
$45.033 million on 3471 screens.
Domestic Gross
$102.543 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Monaural

Runtime: 99 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 12/16/2003

Disc One
• Audio Commentary with Director John Carpenter and Actor Kurt Russell
• Audio Commentary with Producer Debra Hill and Production Designer Joe Alves
Disc Two
• “Return to Escape from New York” Documentary
• “Making of John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles” Gallery
• “Snake Bites” Trailer
• Deleted Scene
• Photo Gallery
• Trailers
• Easter Egg

• Exclusive Comic Book

Search Titles:

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Escape From New York: Special Edition (1981)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 18, 2003)

We all know the classic question: “if a tree fell in the woods and no one was there to hear it, would it make a sound?” But how about this one: “if they turned Manhattan into a giant prison, would anyone notice the difference?” Such is the premise of Escape From New York, a decent action movie from over-rated director John Carpenter.

Frankly, I can’t understand why Carpenter continues to get work into the 21st century. The guy’s reputation was built around one certified classic - the popular and enormously influential Halloween from 1978 - and a few other minor successes like 1984’s Starman and 1982’s The Thing, which actually flopped theatrically but built a strong following in later years.

Escape From New York falls into the category of “mini-hit”. It certainly didn’t bomb, but it didn’t rock the box office either. As with The Thing, it earned good popularity on video, though the former remains the more prominent title.

However, since the mid-Eighties, Carpenter has produced nothing but duds. From 1988’s They Live! to 2001’s Ghosts of Mars - his most recent offering - each film has died a quick and painful death. That list includes the sequel to Escape, 1996’s generally-disliked Escape From L.A..

Due to a laserdisc clearance sale, I actually saw that film before the original Escape, which I’d never watched prior to its DVD release. The sequel wasn’t a total disaster, but Escape from New York clearly provides the superior movie. Note that I didn’t call it a great flick, because it’s not. However, Escape has enough going for it to make it a generally fun experience.

The story takes place in the then future of 1997. As I previously mentioned, Manhattan has become a prison island, one from which no one ever leaves. Until the president (Donald Pleasence) crash lands there, that is, and a rescue mission has to take place.

That attempt involves only one man: super-tough Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a war hero turned crook who is given a shot at freedom if he pulls off this task. For reasons unknown, Russell plays Plissken in full-on Clint Eastwood mode, but surprisingly, it works; yeah, it’s an imitation, but it’s a fun and frisky one that never felt as derivative as it should.

As for the movie itself, I found it enjoyable, though it never quite lived up to the fascinating possibilities of its premise. Granted, the movie probably would have seemed fresher in 1981 than it does now, mostly because so many post-apocalyptic films have emerged in the interim. No, Escape doesn’t take place after any kind of doomsday war that scarred the earth, but it may as well have considering the desolate landscape of the movie’s Manhattan. This is a moody and dark place where freaky gangs run wild. Hey, everyone there’s a vicious criminal - one would expect such an outcome!

Essentially Escape manages to remain interesting and fairly compelling from start to finish. However, I can’t say it includes any distinct highs. In some ways, it seems surprisingly lackluster; scenes exist that probably should feel really exciting but they often appear a little ho-hum.

That said, the movie features no substantial lows either. At worst, it remains entertaining and watchable. It’s somewhat mediocre at times, but still packs enough of a punch to be largely winning. With a killer premise, it would have taken a lot to truly botch Escape From New York. At times John Carpenter flirts with disaster, but the film always stays on the positive side of the equation and makes for a generally fun flick

One note: after September 11, some folks worried that they’d clip out shots in which a plane crashes into a building. Though part of the flick’s action takes place on and around the World Trade Center, the aircraft doesn’t impact into that building, though we do see a shot in which it zooms vaguely toward the edifice. This seems rather creepy now.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B+/ Bonus B

Escape From New York appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I thought the original DVD of Escape released in 2000 looked watchable but flawed. The new one still showed some problems, but it improved upon the old version in many ways.

The biggest jump came from the absence of source flaws. A few shots demonstrated more grain than I’d anticipate, but those elements remained pretty minor. Otherwise, the film seemed virtually free of defects. Whereas the original presented various examples of speckles, grit, spots and scratches, none of those popped up in this clean transfer.

Unfortunately, sharpness seemed a little weaker for the new one, though the two mostly came across with similar definition. Much of Escape looked nicely detailed and distinctive, but more than a few wide shots were less than concise. Some of this resulted from the mild to moderate edge enhancement I noticed during the film, and the movie occasionally looked somewhat too soft. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, though.

Because Escape presented a dark movie, few standout hues appeared. Whereas tones in the prior DVD looked decent but a bit pale, those of the new disc came across as moderately livelier and more accurate. Shots with red lighting looked tighter, and despite their generally restricted nature, the colors were reasonably accurate and vivid.

Given the darkness of the flick, black levels became quite important, and they looked slightly stronger here when compared to the old disc. Dark tones looked acceptable for the most part, but they occasionally seemed somewhat faded and gray. Still, they were deeper than before, and they mostly appeared distinctive. Shadow detail suffered from a little lack of definition, with low-light situations that came across as a little too opaque at times. Nonetheless, these also were a bit better than on the 2000 DVD, and they mostly looked fairly visible. The image of Escape bordered on “B+” territory, but it seemed a little too soft to merit that grade, so I gave it a still solid “B”, a considerable improvement on the original DVD’s “C”.

I also noticed improvements in the film’s Dolby Digital soundtrack when I compared it to the old DVD’s Dolby Surround 2.0 affair, though the pair showed a lot of similarities. They shared rather strong soundfields. I thought the audio provided a surprisingly engaging and active environment that seemed much fresher than one would expect from a 22-year-old track.

The forward spectrum displayed a lot of lively and discrete sound from all three speakers, and the audio usually blended together neatly. The directionality of the front channels was strong, and the new mix eliminated some problems with the old disc. For example, that one demonstrated speech that occasionally fluctuated annoyingly between the center and right speakers at around the 45-minute mark, but here the lines stayed clearly located in the middle where it belonged.

Surround usage seemed quite strong. The rears provided a generally positive ambient experience, and they really kicked in nicely during some of the louder sequences. Especially terrific were any scenes that involved helicopters. Those vehicles sounded bold and bright and swirled about effectively. Surround material mostly seemed to remain monaural but added a lot to the affair anyway, and it sounded like a couple of stereo elements popped up from the rears, such as in a car scene around the 56-minute mark.

Despite this very active track, the quality of the sound forced me to take off some points. However, this effort seemed noticeably cleaner than the old one. Dialogue generally seemed fairly clear and distinct. Though some definite edginess appeared at times, intelligibility was fine and speech usually came across naturally.

The film’s dated but workable synthesizer score presented nice dynamic range and often offered solid low end. On the old disc, this came across as rather distorted at times, but I noticed no such problems here. Bass always stayed tight and firm.

Effects showed a few improvements as well. They still betrayed the thinness typical of recordings from the early Eighties, but they didn’t seem as thin and unrealistic as on the 2000 DVD. These elements also appeared less shrill, and though some light distortion occurred, those concerns were less prevalent. Although Escape still sounded like something from 1981 at times, it usually came across as significantly above average for the era, so it earned a “B+”.

While the prior DVD came with almost no supplements, this new special edition packs on the extras. We find two audio commentaries. Ported over from a 1995 laserdisc, first we hear from writer/director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific piece. This track enjoys a reputation as one of the all-time greats, but it doesn’t deserve it. While interesting and satisfying, it doesn’t merit inclusion among the top commentaries ever recorded.

That said, it does offer a fair amount of good information. We learn a lot about the production, mostly connected to its low budget and tight shooting schedule. Carpenter tells us about various locations, story points, actors, and challenges. Russell chimes in mostly with anecdotes about his experiences. As with prior commentaries in which the pair chat together, Russell just laughs much of the time, and Carpenter also tends to simply narrate the story too frequently. The pair interact nicely and make this a generally positive track, but it doesn’t seem great.

Next we get a new commentary from producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves, both of whom sit together for their running, screen-specific discussion. They also interact well and make this a fairly useful piece, even though it repeats a fair amount of information heard in the prior track. That’s because like Carpenter, Hill obsesses over locations; he and she both insist on telling us every time the setting shifts. That wasn’t that interesting the first time, so hearing it again didn’t do much for me. Other elements receive repetition as well.

However, Alves and Hill focus more on the nitty-gritty of various visual aspects of the film, so this track gets a somewhat different emphasis that makes it worthwhile. We learn about the look of the flick and what went into that as well as more good stories from the set. This track doesn’t seem quite as engaging as the Carpenter/Russell one, but fans will likely enjoy it.

By the way, initially I felt surprised that neither Hill nor Alves mentioned September 11 during their track. However, at one point they mention that they’re taping the piece in 2001, so I presume they did so before that infamous date.

Now we shift to the extras found on DVD Two. These open with Return to Escape From New York, a 22-minute and 55-second documentary. It includes some archival materials, movie clips, and interviews. We hear from Carpenter, Russell, Hill, Alves, writer Nick Castle, director of photography Dean Cundey, and actors Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, and Isaac Hayes. They cover the basics like casting, the origins of the story, locations, character development and plot themes, visual elements, and a few other aspects. Much of the material appears during the two commentaries, but this remains a fairly brisk and tight program that gives us a decent look at the flick.

Next we get the Making of John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles Comic. This stillframe feature uses text, photos and art to demonstrate the creation of a comic book. It does so in a rather simplistic manner and feels more like an ad than anything else. We also get a Snake Bites Trailer Montage. Essentially this marries movie images with lines from the flick and music. It seems like a waste of time.

In the Deleted Scenes area we find “Missing Reel #1”. This 10-minute and 53-second piece offers the original first reel of the film. This provides an unused introduction to Snake that adds to his backstory. It’s interesting to see but wouldn’t have worked well in the final film, as it makes him seem a little too nice and sympathetic. The reel can be watched with or without commentary from Carpenter and Russell. They reflect on the shooting of the material – despite the fact Russell barely remembers any of it – and give us some good notes in addition to the reasons behind its deletion.

A few ads appear in the trailers domain. We get the flick’s original theatrical clip as well as two “teasers”. “Other Great MGM Releases” presents ads for The Terminator, The Fog, Jeremiah, and a general promo entitled “MGM Means Great Movies”.

The Photo Gallery splits into three subsections: “Behind the Scenes” (27 shots), “Production Photos” (22), and “Lobby Cards” (25). These seem decent but nothing special appears. We also find one Easter Egg. From the “Deleted Scenes” listing on DVD Two’s main screen, click to the right and hit enter when this displays an icon of the Manhattan skyline. This lets us hear a radio spot that highlights the Duke of New York and Isaac Hayes’ participation. (I’ve read some reviews that claim Hayes himself does the voiceover, but that’s clearly not the case.)

Finally, one print piece appears. We get a mini-edition of a comic book called John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles. It presents a moderately interesting expansion of the movie, but annoyingly, it acts mostly as a teaser for the comic series. It includes no ending and feels like a tease.

As it stands, Escape From New York largely falls in the “mediocre” category. The movie itself is a decent little action flick that consistently entertained me, though I didn’t think it provided any particularly special thrills. The DVD improves on the old one in every way, as it offers pretty solid picture, surprisingly involving audio, and a fairly good set of extras.

I don’t like Escape enough to recommend it sight unseen, but fans of John Carpenter’s other flicks will want to give it a look. As for those who already own the old DVD, this one merits an upgrade, so it’d make sense to replace the prior release. This special edition is definitely the one for those who possess no Escape to get.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1612 Stars Number of Votes: 31
8 3:
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