The product of a time when New York seemed more likely to rot from within than suffer attacks from without, John Carpenter's Escape From New York took Taxi Driver's urban hellscape and projected it onto a cartoonishly savage future. The premise was brilliantly simple: By the far-off year of 1997, crime is so out of hand that Manhattan has been abandoned, cordoned off into a maximum-security prison and left to destroy itself. Needing to rescue kidnapped president Donald Pleasence from within Manhattan's confines, special agent Lee Van Cleef hits upon a desperate plan: Send in a criminal tough enough to take on an island. He finds one in the eyepatched Snake Plissken, memorably played by Kurt Russell as a cross between Clint Eastwood and a damaged Vietnam vet. (Sandwiched between the TV biopic Elvis and the John Wayne-inspired Big Trouble In Little China, Escape From New York is the center of a loose Carpenter/Russell trilogy featuring larger-than-life American heroes.) Created on a relatively tiny budget from constructive editing, St. Louis ghettoes, and pounds of detritus, Carpenter's grittily convincing New York-in-decay remains the film's best element. Never particularly suspenseful and hampered by a finale that almost literally steers the plot toward a dead end, Escape only intermittently finds Carpenter flexing his directorial muscles. But it may be his most visionary film: Escape allowed him to build a future out of scraps from the past. Playing a cabbie (named, appropriately enough, "Cabbie"), Ernest Borgnine cheerily drives one of New York's few working cars while blaring the same big-band song over and over again. He works for "The Duke" (Isaac Hayes), a pitiless warlord who rules the city wearing a cowboy's hat and boots and a Napoleonic military commander's jacket while holding gladiatorial contests to feed the bloodlust of the masses. It's history repeating itself as a violent farce, and it allows Carpenter to revel in his most cynical impulses. Reappearing as a double-disc DVD, Escape From New York contains a nice array of expected features and one nifty find: A long-deleted opening reel in which Russell robs a bank, only to be caught while trying to save his partner. On the audio commentary accompanying the scene, both Carpenter and Russell seem to agree that removing it was a good idea. "This actually humanizes him. Now, some people might say that's a good thing," Carpenter says. Russell interrupts: "This movie's not for them."
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