Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Season Hubley, George 'Buck' Flower
Written by: John Carpenter, Nick Castle
Directed by: John Carpenter
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 99
Date: 05/22/1981

Escape from New York (1981)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Apple Jumping

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In elite film circles John Carpenter's name usually elicits weary eye-rolls. Or, from the most devoted fans, "didn't he once do something good a couple of decades ago?" But look closer and Carpenter is one of the few old-school filmmakers working today. Having studied the great directors of the studio system like Howard Hawks and John Ford, Carpenter has more or less based his entire career on their model. He has worked for all different studios, jumping from independent films to larger films. And yet he has always stayed true to his own singular vision. Each and every film Carpetner has made sports his signature style. The new Escape from New York Special Edition (1981, MGM/UA, $29.98) DVD helps prove this point.

This almost forgotten film reveals a near-visionary workmanship, a low-budget film heavy on atmosphere and playful of character. Its $6 million budget bought what looks like a $50 million film. The film's futuristic hero, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is about as bad as can be. Caught during a robbery, he's given a certain number of hours to fly into New York City -- now a gang-run war zone -- and rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence). Wherever he goes, his reputation precedes him: "I thought you were dead!" goes the refrain. Snake meets up with an oddball cast of characters and, as in Howard Hawks films, the bad guys team up against greater bad guys.

Carpenter uses Cinemascope framing to help establish physical relationships between characters, and always tells stories within a "genre" (sci-fi or horror) format to help get his point across with less soapbox grandstanding. The DVD comes with many special features already included in the mid-90s laserdisc release, specifically an excellent commentary track recorded by Carpenter and Russell, a deleted scene (the famous robbery scene) and many other extras. Carpenter's sequel, Escape from L.A., was released in 1996.

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