Escape From New York (1981): Breakdown by RANTBO
The President (of the United States), is being held hostage in the country’s largest maximum security prison: New York City. So, naturally, the powers that be send in a bank robber to extract him. Badassery ensues.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Kurt Russell is Snake Plissken
Rebel, outlaw and hero of anti-authoritarianism lore, ‘Call me’ Snake Plissiken redefined what being a badass was all about. A former adherent to the system that gave him the tools to be a one-man-army and subsequent decorated war hero, turned renegade soldier of fortune (in that he robs banks), Snake is a force to be reckoned with.
Hauk: S.D. Plissken. American. Lieutenant Special Forces unit Black Light. Two purple hearts, Leningrad and Siberia. Youngest man to be decorated by the president. You robbed the Federal Reserve depository. Life sentence, New York Maximum Security Penitentiary.
Plissken’s recent actionable history as a hardened criminal and thief is only ever alluded to (outside of the previous quote from his dossier), by the lowlifes he meets in the Big Apple who all claim to have heard of him, but also claim to have heard of his unspecified demise. So whatever facts people claim to know about the man are questionable at best. And his military past isn’t brought up by anyone either (again, outside that quote) all of which adds magnificently to his classic archetype of the enigmatic anti-hero. His motivations too, are left unclear outside of the obvious goal of autonomy. All we know is that Snake is a loner, a renegade—a cowboy. And he doesn’t give a fuck about the war, or the president, or the human race—well, mostly… there’s clearly some small side to the man that ties him to those weak human emotions like empathy, compassion and shit. But it’s about the size of a sliver and only pokes it’s head out enough to want to keep Adrienne Barbeau alive for ravaging later. At least that’s how I see it. So all-in-all with his camo-pants, cobra inked abdomen, smart-ass snarky remarks and signature black eye patch (that’s right, not even a lack of depth perception inhibits this monster of manliness); Snake is pure, unscrupulous bad-ass gold.
SNAKE’S SUPPORT TEAM:
Ernest Borgnine is Cabbie
Driving the same taxi on the same streets for 30 years, Cabbie knows everyone and serves as Snake’s self-appointed NYC liaison. Overtly friendly and warm, to a bizarre degree, one assumes (if his history is true) that Cabbie simply never left the Big Apple after it was transformed into the prison. Dedication, an admirable trait. But Cabbie is also quite shady, so he could just be a creepy sex offender with a public transportation angle. Who knows. Not much else is revealed about the man, other than he likes listening to music and has a childlike wonder and fascination for Snake. And much like a child, is quick to cower in fear and abandon his idol in times of danger. Cabbie redeems himself somewhat by showing back up when the rest of the “heroes” are in dire straights for a lift, but commentates the ride with his reservations to Snake’s methods. So, Cabbie is more of an annoying means-to-an-end than a valuable edition to the crew.
Harry Dean Stanton is Harold ‘The Brain’ Helman
Four years ago in Kansas City, former buddies; Snake, Harold and Fresno Bob were pulling an unspecified job when Harry left the others high and dry. Snake only knows what happened to poor Bob-o, but he’s not happy about it. Now under the alias of ‘Brain’, due to his above average intelligence (for the colony at least), Helman has become The Duke’s go-to guy for intel and prison-break schemes. But in reality The Brain is just a smooth talking flimflammer out to save his own hide. Kinda like Snake, only without a military background. Or balls. So you can kinda see how these two used to work together. However, Brain does orchestrate and execute the second attempt at rescuing the President, and he succeeds. Even in getting some blood on his hands in the process, so he’s not a complete wuss.
Adrienne Barbeau is Maggie
Cabbie: That’s Maggie, the Brain’s squeeze.
Maggie is a surprisingly complex character considering Barbeau was basically in the film because she was married to Carpenter. Though her impressive set of lungs probably didn’t hurt either. Bestowed to Harold by The Duke for pleasing him with his knowledge, Maggie is a bit of a conundrum in that she genuinely seems to like this arrangement. On one hand it’s understandable in that Brain is clearly the lesser of two evils, but in the end it’s revealed that she genuinely had feelings for her owner. Weird. Which brings me to her level of badassitude: High. Maggie is a fighter and when given the firepower to accentuate her feistiness, she racks up almost as many kills as Snake and takes the role of a supposed concubine and transforms it into one of a bodyguard, faithful to the end. You gotta respect that.
Isaac Hayes is The Duke Of New York. A-Number One. The Big Man.
Cabbie: Don’t cross The Duke, everyone knows that!
First, he’s Isaac Hayes. The Oscar winning 70s soul-daddy himself is Snake’s opposition. Fantastic. The Duke rolls around the desolate streets of his kingdom in a ’77 Cadillac complete with hydraulics, a disco-ball and chandeliers for hood ornaments. The leader of the Gypsies, New York’s toughest prison gang, nobody fucks with this man. Except for Snake Plissken. And it’s only when this rare threat to his authority is introduced into The Duke’s world, does his badassitude begin to falter—but even then, only with an eye-twitch tic. Other than that though, The Duke remains strong to his cause: remaining large and in-charge. A pig-headed and violent bully, The Duke reigns over his gang with a nail-laden iron fist and remains king of the rubble all the way to fence where, sadly, he ceases to be A-#1 and becomes a big puddle of A1 steak sauce.
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO:
Hauk: Plissken? Plissken, what are you doing?
Snake: Playing with myself! I’m going in.
Much like Bronson, Snake is completely a-sexual. Even his skin-tight muscle shirt and long hair don’t suggest hidden desires. While I could bring up the fact that Snake shows disgust when kissed by a dirty, yet attractive miscreant (Kurt Russell’s real wife at the time), when under the circumstances of hiding from a gang of psychos, it’s not really queer to shy away from propositions of sex. However, that is not to say Escape doesn’t feature some homoerotic tendencies…
For starters, a large source of inmate entertainment appears to be watching cabaret shows, in which the entire singing and dancing cast are men in drag doing high-kicks. Cabbie REALLY enjoys it. Then there’s The Duke’s #2 “man”, Romero (Frank Doubleday). With his effeminate cat-calls and dainty mannerisms this skinny little creep is clearly the A-#1 Punk-Bitch. In-arguably confirmed when Maggie shows up in the presence of The Duke and like a jealous girlfriend, Romero shoots her a dirty look and opens up his undershirt to display his chest in contest.
EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY:
As one would assume, women have become bartering chips, gifts and trophies within the walls of the city. Yes, there is no dividing among the sexes in this colony. Needless to say, there aren’t too many ladies left walking the streets. And the film doesn’t shy away from displaying a small, yet essentially unnecessary, window of explanation as when Snake is searching for the President, he comes across a bunch of gang-bangers passing around either a completely wasted near dead female comrade. To which Snake tilts his head in query about, but then simply moves on, leaving her to a sure fire fate of rape and probably death. Pretty dark when you think about it. The movie combats the weaker sex’s exploitation by having Maggie be a tough-as-nails fighter, but even then, she is still property that fights to the death for her owner’s honor. Women —shrug—?
MURDER BY NUMBERS: [ 36 ]
Click HERE for the Body Count Breakdown
A lot higher than I remembered. Though most of the deaths come from an unnamed female resistance fighter who crashes Air Force One into a building, Snake himself manages eight of the total. His colleagues add to the anti-heroic numbers by seven, plus the death of The Duke if you count The President’s kill toward Team Snake, bringing the heroes total to sixteen. And Snake also manages to K.O. another seven punks with the power of his fists. So all-in-all, it’s not too shabby.
MOST SATISFYING ASS-KICKING AND/OR DEATH:
Snake vs. Slag
Captured and wounded with a harpoon to the leg, Snake’s fate under the roof of The Duke is left to be decided in the ring—of death. And, of course, the odds are stacked against Plissken with his opposition coming in the form of a seven foot maniac named Slag (re-life wrestler, Ox Baker). The fight begins (in true American fashion), with baseball bats, and quickly escalates (in true American fashion), to nail-spiked baseball bats and trashcan-lid shields.
Snake takes his fair share of blows, but despite his battle damage, remains nimble enough to avoid the giant’s attacks and counter back with a nail-bat to the oaf’s balls and a classic match-winning move of burying the make-shift mace into the back of Slag’s over-sized noggin.
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
Snake Instigates World War III… or is it IV?
Turns out the urgency of Snake’s mission to bring back the President safely actually had repercussions outside of the hassle of a mid-term swearing in ceremony. As it turns out when Air Force One was hijacked it was en route to a peace conference with the Soviet Union and China, with a tape cassette containing a speech recording that will somehow muffle he trumpets of war. Snake succeeds in the nick of time, but just before the President goes live to the conference via broadcast, Snake asks the commander in chief what his thoughts are on all the people who just died to bring him back over the wall. Too bad for the world, it’s not much. So Snake just flicks his cigarette and walks away stoically, remaining silent about secretly switching the country’s last bastion of peaceful hope with one of Cabbie’s American Bandstand cassette tapes. All but insuring the plea for peace to be an embarrassing failure.
Arguably the most epic act of defiance ever committed in the whole of Bad-Ass Cinema.
Bob Hauk: There was an accident. About an hour ago, a small jet went down inside New York City. The President was on board.
Snake: The president of what?
In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out. ~The Narrator
Que that classic keyboard score. Somber, yet at the same time uplifting, cheesy yet inexplicably impressive; the synthesized theme music by the legendary B-Movie architect, writer/director John Carpenter, is one of my all-time favorites. Genius in it’s simplicity, the score sets a fabulous tone over an equally low-budget credits sequence of white font over black background. A less-is-more out of necessity approach, so common to Carpenter’s style, not only had it become lovingly expected by this point in his career, it was eagerly anticipated as well.
Written back in 1973, Escape From New York began as Carpenter’s response to the current state of politics and affairs in America, and continued to evolve as such over the next seven years until the concept finally made the move from paper to celluloid. And a simple enough idea; a man goes into a prison against his will to rescue a politician whose creeds and deeds counter-act the bad-ass’s own, had become a big-budget futuristic sci-fi adventure film, shot for pennies on the grand premises’ dollar. In a lesser director’s hands, this would have spelled doom, but in Carpenter’s the concept became only that much more endearing and impressive.
The anti-hero for the picture is, of course, Snake Plissken. Why he is named Snake, is never explained (it sounds cool). His initials are S.D., and he does have a tattoo of a cobra directly above (and probably coiling around) his dick. So it could be a nickname given to him by some lady friend. Though, as I established above, Snake is a “Charlie Bronson” a-sexual, so the name is more likely bestowed upon him because he’s just a vicious, cold, and violent mother fucker. But speaking of Charles Bronson, I was interested to find out after watching the DVD’s commentary that Chuck was the top casting choice by the studio to play the part, but was struck down by Carpenter, as he wanted someone younger. And thank fuck John stood firm. Not because I have anything against Bronson, I don’t whatsoever, but it’s this movie that solidified the greatest American director/actor team of all time: Russell and Carpenter (Yun-Fat and Woo being the greatest, worldwide). Having previously worked together on a made-for-TV Elvis bio-pic (Elvis (1979)), Escape rejoined the duo and sparked a series of films so good it makes my cock stiff just thinking about them: The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China and Escape From L.A. ( and yes, ‘I Love L.A.’). Other actors the studio shopped included Tommy Lee Jones, Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges and Kris Kristofferson. Of the lot, Kristofferson might have come close, but I really can’t picture anyone but Russell. Nor would I want to, Kurt IS Snake.
After the casting of Lee Van Cleef, as the cavalier prison warden Hauk (who was great by the way), Russell and Carpenter talked it over and decided to make Snake’s voice and give-a-care attitude an homage to Eastwood’s ‘The Man With No Name’. A decision that effectively skyrocketed Plissken onto a whole other level, as who’s more bad-ass than ‘The Man’? Well—Snake Fuckin’ Plissken, that’s who. By mixing Eastwood’s gruff whisper and dirty looks with long-hair, an eye-patch and a plethora of sci-fi Bondian gadgets, Russell successfully out-bad-asses the master.
The whole sci-fi western branches out from there as well. Snake spends much of his time wandering the barren streets of a godforsaken New York City (played by St. Louis, L.A. and Atlanta), much like a lone gunman clanking his spurs down the dusty main street of a reckless and uninhibited western township. The only difference being that Snake is motivated not by money, women or a drive to see justice be served; but by a simple desire to survive another day in which he can stick it to the man.
Duped into being injected with two mini-bombs set to explode his arteries in less than 24hrs., Snake has to use every trick in his bad-ass book to find the President, survive the escape AND find a way to payback the very people he’s been coerced into aiding. All without landing himself back behind the dreaded city walls. And this is how he one-ups Eastwood’s Blondie: Good-ol’ fashion American apathy, self-centeredness and revenge. When Kurt Russell was asked recently by a journalist about his thoughts on Gerard Butler taking the role of Plissken for a re-make, Russell claimed that “if Snake is anything, he’s American.” You’re god damn right he is, Mr. Russell.
Now after all that patriotism, I feel the need to bring up the one foreign actor I’ve yet to discuss, Carpenter alumni, Donald Pleasence. Who, oddly enough, plays The President—Of The United States. But he keeps the accent. Apparently Pleasence did come up with a backstory for why America has a British president involving Margaret Thatcher taking over the world and making the United States a colony again… Seriously. Carpenter just (for one reason or another), decided not to use it. Either way, fine by me. I mean, it’s Donald Pleasence—Blofeld for Christ sakes! And SPECTRE #1 can speak any way he damn well pleases. Also, I feel the need to mention his one big moment of badassness before slipping the commander and chief back into the tool-shed where he belongs: After successfully escaping New York (via Snake), the President gains the high-ground and takes revenge on his captor, The Duke. And I must say, there’s nothing quite like watching Dr. Loomis pump Truck Turner fulla lead with a machine-gun. It’s almost cathartic.
There’s one final aspect of the film that I absolutely can’t ignore before I wrap this up: The City. A character all unto itself. As mentioned before, Penitentiary New York was created by combining a bunch of different footage from a bunch of different cities, but one thing remains constant throughout: the production design by Joe Alves (Fire Down Below, with an assist by James Cameron as ‘The Matte Painter”) is spectacular and still holds up nearly thirty years later. Meaning those are some damn impressive matte-paintings and models, action fans. Everything is dark, dirty and deliciously haggard. In one of my favorite scenes, Snake is running from a gang of Crazies and has to escape further INTO New York by literally shooting his way through a building, jumping through a human sized circle of bullet-softened walls. Man, they don’t make ’em like they used to…
In closing, Escape From New York is vintage B-Movie action. The tale of a reluctant bad-ass on a mission of forced martyrdom surrounded by the gloomy post-apocalyptic-esq atmosphere of a dangerous and desolate city; a ridiculous concept played seriously, but with just enough of a post modernism twist to let you know the laughs you receive are expected and appreciated—oft’ imitated, never duplicated, Escape is A-#1.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
You fuck with a Snake, you’re gonna get bit. Hard.
[THE AOBG ACTION CHECKLIST]
[X] Athlete(s) Turned “Actor” [Russell]
[X] Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
[X] Crotch Attack
[X] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
[ ] Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket or A Towel
[X] Giant Explosion(s)
[X] Heavy Artillery
[ ] Improvised Weapon(s)
[X] Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
[X] Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
[ ] Manly Embrace(s)
[X] Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting [Dick Warlock]
[ ] Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[X] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
[X] Shoot Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
[ ] Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[X] Stupid Authoritative Figure(s)
[X] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
[ ] Tis The Season
[X] Torture Sequence(s)
[X] Unnecessary Sequel [Escape From L.A. (1996)]
[X] Vehicle Chase(s)
[ ] Vigilante Justice
[TOTAL: 18 outta 25]
Escape From New York (1981) © Avco-Embassy Pictures Corp. / Review © AllOuttaBubbleGum.com and Ty ‘RANTBO’ Hanson