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On July 10, 1981, John Carpenter unveiled his R-rated dystopian thriller Escape From New York in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
The year is 1997, and Manhattan — all of it from the Battery to the Bronx — has been converted into a walled-off, maximum security prison in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Theoretically, escape is impossible. The bridges are mined, and radar maintains an implacable vigil over the surrounding waters. And yet an escape route must be found — and in less than 24 hours — for the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence), whose sabotaged Air Force One has placed him in the hands of New York’s criminal population.
Who can set him free? Police Commissioner Lee Van Cleef believes he has found his man in Kurt Russell, a scruffy war hero who is also a convicted master criminal. If Russell can accomplish his mission, he can go free; if not, two tiny explosives implanted in his arteries will kill him — which doesn’t leave him much choice.
The focus of this Avco Embassy production is on Russell’s efforts to locate the President in the ravaged city despite organized terror gangs and the murderous, hunger-driven “gypsies” who roam the streets by night.
Despite his assortment of futuristic gadgetry (including a gun that never seems to run out of bullets) Russell is forced mainly to rely upon — or to outwit — such hardened criminal types as Season Hubley, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, the androgynous Tom Atkins and, most formidable of all, Isaac Hayes’ self-styled Duke of New York. (Hubley, who gives him his first lead, is billed simply as Girl in Chock Full o’Nuts — and is unceremoniously dragged underground for her efforts).
Escape From New York is the kind of movie that calls for an immediate suspension of disbelief. One must credit Carpenter (and co-writer Nick Castle) for their ingenuity in devising the central situation; but that granted, the major credit would seem to go to Carpenter’s teams of special effects experts and stuntmen, to Joe Alves, his production designer, to Stephen Loomis, his costume designer, and to Brian Chin, for his brilliant miniatures. Together they have created an altogether convincing picture of New York’s grisly future — and all the more impressive for knowing that most of the exteriors were shot in St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Using the new Elicon camera equipment, Carpenter remains ever on the alert for the confirming details — figures that flit disconcertingly by or that menacingly materialize out of the shadows, rats that have become unconcerned by the presence of man, a vast terminal lined with decrepit and mouldering railway cars. The photography, supervised by Dean Cundey, startlingly combines the deep, electric blues of dark, rain swept surfaces with an oddly col[d] orange given off by the flickering street fires that appear everywhere. Carpenter, working for the first time with a budget ($7 million) approaching the adequate, has given his picture a marvelous look.
It also has a great sound to it thanks in part to his judicious use of Dolby (which has a tendency to enhance effects while obliterating dialogue), and to his own twangy, percussive electronic score, which Carpenter both wrote and performed in association with Alan Howarth. It is admirably functional, underlining and at the same time enhancing the action passages.
Which is important, for in the long run, it’s the film’s incessant action, along with its high imagination, that will spell out the success of Escape from New York. There are few of the shock elements of Halloween or The Fog; in spirit, it’s much closer to his earlier Assault on Precinct 13, which ever since it’s recent rediscovery has been developing into a cult classic. My guess is that Escape won’t have to wait so long. It has got an intriguing premise, an effective cast, and it has been expertly mounted. — Arthur Knight, originally published on June 12, 1981.
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