It’s a ballsy move making Escape From New York take place a mere 16 years into the future. In the film, the world has changed so much. Even by today’s standards. The United States government has turned Manhattan into a maximum security prison surrounded by giant 50-foot walls, due to a 400% increase in crime. There are no guards in the prison. The prisoners inside are left to the world they’ve created.
Air Force One has been hijacked, and the President’s escape pod crash lands inside the Manhattan prison, so the government hires one of its inmates, Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell), to rescue the President in exchange for his pardoning.
Snake is pretty dry, and at one point we fear that we’re going to have to suffer through 90 minutes of his surliness. We watch a Kurt Russell movie because we want Kurt Russell. But this is like watching a Will Ferrell movie and getting Taylor Lautner with better acting.
Not only is he pretty void of emotion, but we get hardly any backstory on him or any of the other interesting characters. Just murmurings here and there, which ends up sounding like gibberish amidst the context of the film.
The way Russell says things should make them corny, but it never does. Early on we start forgetting that he sounds like Batman playing Clint Eastwood. Partially due to Russell’s acting, but also because the dialogue is so crisp.
A year early, this one feels like Blade Runner, but less brooding. It’s weird and deceptively goofy. Like the type of weird straight-to-video VHS tape that would have developed a cult following 30 years later. Only this was a mainstream hit.
The film isn’t as dated as it appears. Though some of the character decisions definitely are. I mean, you can’t get away with “forgetting the gun” as easily these days. But its unvarnished look is what gives it character. It feels more real than the likes of Blade Runner. Maybe it doesn’t have as much to say, but it definitely still says something.
The main bad guy within the prison, Duke (Isaac Hayes), is a crime boss who desperately wants to leverage the President for his own escape from prison. The hype around Duke is far more sinister than the character himself. They give him sinister things to say, but Hayes is just too cool to make them convincing.
Escape From New York is not quite as epic as it wants to be, but it’s not due to a fault in the impressively constructed universe. The sets are believable and you get a great feel for the suffocation of this prison. But it’s just a little dated and slow for an action film.