John Carpenter and Kurt Russell’s Great ‘Escapes’

Only one is considered a classic, but both survey an America in total collapse

The one time I ever went to the World Trade Center was in 1993 at the insistence of my father, who is a big fan of “John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.”

In fact, we went to the rooftop (I can’t remember which tower it was), took a walk around and my Father assessed the space. He determined Snake Plissken, the film’s great anti-hero (embodied by the wonderful Kurt Russell), couldn’t have landed his glider atop the WTC, as there wasn’t enough space.

Later on, after really looking over the area, my Father (who is a pilot and manned many gliders himself) reconsidered, ending his analysis that Snake’s likeliness of surviving the landing was “a big maybe.”

The detail really mattered to my Father. Of all the things I recall about my one and only experience inside of New York’s defining structure, it was my Father’s fanboy enthusiasm for an eye-patched, gravelly voiced Russell in a leather jacket that I remember the clearest.

Escape From New York Official Trailer #1 (1981) Kurt Russell, John Carpenter HD

In Carpenter’s film (his first since “The Fog” and the Nielsen ratings juggernaut “Elvis,” which starred Russell in the title role), New York has become a massive prison. Russell’s mean but efficient Plissken is the only one-man soldier worthy of entering the no man’s land of 1997 New York, where the escape plane of The U.S. President (Donald Pleasance) has crash landed.

Plissken only has 22 hours to complete his suicide mission, in which he becomes an instant target just by showing his face in public.

“Escape from New York” takes its time to establish its America gone terribly wrong and emphasize the oppressive nature of the law enforcers who keep everything unwanted remaining inside New York.

Once Snake touches down atop the WTC and enters the city on foot, it feels closer to a Carpenter horror film than the comic adventure many remember. Yes, the supporting cast is colorful enough to elicit a chuckle at first glance (Isaac Hayes as the villainous Duke of New York, Ernest Borgnine as the city’s last cheerful cabbie, etc.) but everyone is playing this for real.

Escape From New York (1/2) Snake On The Run (1981) HD

Likewise, Russell’s performance, which starts as an amusing Clint Eastwood-impression but becomes a genuine cowboy, the kind of grizzled, seen-it-all warrior for hire in both Leone and Kurosawa films. Typical of Carpenter, who is incapable of assembling a dull ensemble cast, the side characters are seasoned by Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Borgnine and Hayes, all of whom are sincere and vivid in their roles.

Of the standouts, Lee Van Cleef is wonderful as the Chief of Police who trusts Plissken (but only so much) to be sent to New York and achieve the impossible.

“Escape from New York” is downright spooky, with the garbage-strewn streets and faceless, barely visible monster/citizens scurrying in the background of many shots. The prisoners of The Big Apple are mostly zombie-like punks and everyone else is either a victim or a victimizer.

The narration explains that the denizens of New York are living in their self-controlled, lawless world, reminding me of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (or, CHAZ) in Seattle last year.

This is less an action movie and more a walking tour of an America that has been stripped of its dignity.

FAST FACT: “Escape from New York” earned $25 million at the U.S. box office in 1981, while 1996’s “Escape from L.A.” also generated $25 million, an obvious letdown given the original’s cult status.

There’s a haunting moment where Snake is exploring the basement of Radio City Music Hall and walks past a vacant room where a woman is being silently raped by three men. Snake notes the violation with disgust, then moves on and walks away.

It’s a troubling scene, though it says so much about Plissken- the mission is everything. He’s a jerk for not fighting to save that woman but he also knows that she and everyone else in New York are doomed anyway.

A similar moment occurs later, when Plissken encounters a chatty local (played strikingly by Season Hubley, who was married to Russell at the time). Their banter hints at a love interest for Plissken but a random attack from an unexpected place suddenly tears her away from him. This is an extremely pessimistic, cynical view of humankind.

Plissken’s unceasing dedication to his mission, as frustrating as it is, feels exactly right for the character. So does the wonderful moment where, once it seems the entire mission is a failure, he sits in a chair, trying to figure out what to do next.

Call is apocalypse-appropriate or Carpenter’s reflection of the ’70s burnout and heartbreak of the optimistic Flower Power movement. However you choose to interpret it, Plissken is cold and unsentimental, an admirably hard to like villain, played daringly by one of the most liked actors in film history.

Russell and Plissken were made for each other, in the same way, only Carpenter could have pulled this off.

RELATED: Why John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ Deserves Your Respect 

There’s a famous deleted scene, in which we see Plissken commit the robbery that got him arrested – it used to be the first scene of the movie. I love the sequence and wish it were still in the finished film. Nevertheless, the just over 90-minute running time races by and Carpenter, as always, keeps it lean and on its feet (the director’s only sluggish movie is “Starman”).

Then there’s the sequel, “John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.” (1996), which arrived belatedly, as Carpenter’s hit streak was beaten down by too many flops (like the so-so “Village of the Damned” and the misunderstood “In the Mouth of Madness”).

Russell, on the other hand, finally found major career momentum, with surprise hits, like “Backdraft,” “Unlawful Entry,” “Tombstone” and “Stargate.” To the disappointment of many, the second Plissken adventure, while certainly dark, is humorous, loaded with social and self-aware satire and is more of a remake than a true sequel.

While audiences and critics were largely dismissive (unlike the far more enthusiastic response the original received from critics and the box office), “Escape from L.A.,” like “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” is, no joke, one of the greatest sequels ever made.

In the same way that Joe Dante’s second Gremlins romp mocked itself and sequels in general, while upping the scale in size and spoofery, Carpenter’s film is a goof on the culture of Hollywood, the annoyances of Los Angeles and the expectations of sequels in general.

Escape From L.A. (1996) - Official Trailer

The plot: Snake Plissken (once again played by Russell) has been seized by authorities and sent on a deadly mission for the second time. He’s been injected with a virus that will kill him unless he rescues the President’s daughter. It seems the First Daughter is living in the prison state of L.A. with gun-toting revolutionaries.

Did I mention this takes place in the year 2013?

George Corraface plays Cuervo Jones, the central villain and his performance is underwhelming, especially in comparison to Hayes’ The Duke in the original. However, the ensemble Carpenter has assembled here is one of his best and craziest.

In key supporting roles are Valeria Golino, Stacey Keach, Pam Grier, Cliff Robertson (as the U.S. President!) and Peter Fonda in full surfer dude mode. There’s also a reliably scene stealing turn by Steve Buscemi as “Map of the Stars Eddie” and, in a brilliant cameo, Bruce Campbell as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills.

Campbell’s crazed flesh slicer has clearly had as much work as his patients. The satire on hand isn’t subtle, but it’s funny and effective.


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Taken as a dark comedy, “Escape From L.A.” always works. Plissken may be one of our toughest movie anti-heroes but he’s also funny, as Russell is still teasing Eastwood’s Man With No Name persona. Russell’s hilarious deadpan and the film’s Mad Magazine depiction of a warped City of Angels keep the laughs coming.

How does it compare to the original? Brilliantly, in fact. Rather than do a straight faced, self consciously “dark” sequel to an already bleak original, Carpenter and Russell decide to lovingly parody the original and mercilessly tease the tackier aspects of Los Angeles. The special effects may be positively analog but the targets of satire are still ripe, as is the cautionary note of a world run by a right-leaning lunatic.

It’s also a balls-to-the-wall action movie, with one memorable scene after another. Plissken’s one-man motorcycle siege is a cleanly staged set piece. A do-or-die game of basketball is fittingly goofy, as is the knowingly ultra-campy moment when Plissken catches a wave and somehow leaps onto Map the Stars Eddie’s car.

Escape From L.A. (1996) - Basketball to the Death Scene (6/10) | Movieclips

Then there’s the grand finale, which seemingly slipped by the consciousness of pop culture: Plissken and his crew take on Disneyland by hang glider, guns blazing on Main Street. Why the heck isn’t this movie as highly regarded a cult item as the original? It may be intended for laughs but this is every bit as audacious, nutty, downbeat and fiendishly imaginative as its predecessor.

The final scene is breathtaking, both as a reflection of late ’90s cinematic anarchism (not unlike “Fight Club”) and as the penultimate example of how far Carpenter is willing to go.

The denouement is quiet and the big revelation is handled as perhaps the greatest bit of one-upmanship in human history. Plissken is never looking for glory, money or even a home but the privilege of walking into the shadows and being left alone.

His closing moment is the fattest middle finger and the loudest up yours he could possibly give the powers-that-be. Plissken’s exit is a defiant win. So is the movie. There will never be a sequel like this again.

Whether canvassing the wreckage of New York or L.A., Carpenter and Plissken, his fed-up avatar, sift through the ashes of human rot and give it an angry, dismissive shrug. In the filmmaker’s vision, there is no possible happy ending or catharsis when the protagonist and the broken land he explores is this far gone.

When the world is an unreliable junk heap that will engulf you and our only “hero” is Snake Plissken, there is no real escape.

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