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Old 10-04-2004, 04:12 PM
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Default Escape From New York: Special Edition




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: December 16, 2004

Released by: MGM
Release date: 12/16/2003
MSRP: $29.98
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes



A voice of decadence in a pre-Reagan America, Snake Plissken became America's quintessential countercultural figure to usher the 70's into the 80's. Made for a meager 5 million dollars, John Carpenter's Escape From New York became one of the biggest breakout successes of the year, grossing five times its budget. Although always beloved, New York has only grown in stature thanks to its success on home video markets. A quality laserdisc special edition was released in the mid 90's, and Snake made the jump to digital at the turn of the 21st century. However, MGM's original DVD was shoddy at best, and now, attempting to right the wrongs is a brand new two disc special edition. How does this new Snake slither?

The Story

inline Image 1997. New York City has become an island prison. Air Force One has crash landed in the city penitentiary. The president (Donald Pleasence) is held captive by the Duke of New York (Isssssssssaac Hayes). Only one man can save him...and he's on death row. Snake Plissken's (Kurt Russell) the name; a man of little words and big action. He is given the opportunity for a full pardon by Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) if he agrees to go into the big apple to get Mr. White House. Snake cares little about the world and a lot about himself, so he accepts hoping to skip town to Canada where he can be free.

inline Image Unfortunately, Bob implants some gizmos into his neck that will kill him after 24 hours if he does not return with the president. Any time after that, the president becomes useless because he will be unable to attend a summit that could save the world from mass destruction. Snake therefore must comply (barely) with the system, landing on the Twin Towers (eerie that they remain in an apocalyptic America, yet in our civil society they are no longer) and off to save the prez.

inline Image Thus begins his journey into the inferno of sin, as Snake encounters a number of characters and situations ahead. He meets up briefly with a punker (Russell's former wife, Season Hubley), and then later with an old friend "Harold" (Harry Dean Stanton) and his girl Maggie (Carpenter's former squeeze, Adrienne Barbeau). If Snake wants to face the Duke and retrieve the president, he is going to need all the help he can get. So Snake, Harold, Maggie and their outspoken cab driver (Ernest Borgnine) come together to form a seriously disturbed Wild Bunch. Will the president be saved, and more importantly, will Snake escape from New York?

inline Image Made in 1981 for a tiny 5 million, Escape From New York is a triumph of production design. Everything, from the computer layouts to James "Titanic" Cameron's gorgeous matte and miniature work looks leaps and bounds better than it has any right too. The scope of Carpenter's wide 2.35:1 frame also lends handily in making New York a larger than life experience. What is so surprising about New York is the fact that it looks about 10 times better than Escape From L.A., despite costing 10 times less. The work done in New York is a testament to how much better and more realistic physical effects work can be compared to CGI.

inline Image The story too, is nearly as solid as the production design. Carpenter injects the film with his typical Hawksian dynamic, with strong female characters, a large ensemble cast, and a brilliant final tracking shot. Like his superior Assault on Precinct 13, New York reinvents many of the elements found in Hawks' westerns, transfusing them into a modern/futuristic setting. Although Carpenter would better develop his Western reworking in the sun-soaked L.A., New York very much contains the central idea of a drifter in a feral and savage land.

inline Image Russell's Snake Plissken is a modern day Clint Eastwood; gruff, coarse-voiced, of few words and quick to the draw. Russell plays Snake with the kind of ballsy disrespect and anger that you just don't see from cinema anymore. As he quietly turns the other cheek while a woman is raped and lodges a nailed baseball bat into the head of a wrestler, we realize this is no longer the same Russell from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Typical of Carpenter's "ME" generation attitude, Russell looks out only for #1, and the way he removes himself from everyone around him contributes to this isolation. Like New York itself, Snake Plissken is an island. Carpenter so greatly gives Snake a questionable mystique, from his name to his eye-patch, that he really becomes a mythic, and larger than life entity. Russell, so determined to shake his Disney image, puts everything on the line with his performance, rebelliously bringing Carpenter's words to life. Snake Plissken is one of the great anti-heros of our time.

inline Image What makes New York interesting though, is the way that Carpenter characterizes Adrienne Barbeau's character. Maggie's femininity is reinforced in every frame by her ample, exposed bosom. She is every bit a woman, yet she emerges as the only other character as strong willed as Snake. Like the tough Hawksian woman, she represents male strength in the female form. In almost all her scenes, she is shown with a weapon, be it gun or knife. Seductively stroking the barrel of her gun, she controls her sexuality and uses her weapons as a surrogate male phallus. It is so rare that a female character like Barbeau's is given so much power, and Snake acknowledges this with their final exchange. When Maggie vows to stay back and confront the Duke (gun in hand), Snake lets out his only cry of compassion in the film. Crying out her name, he seems oddly moved by her empowering gesture. While he may turn his cheek to a woman being raped, or ditch the punker in Chock Full O Nuts, he cannot deny that Maggie is every bit his equal, and in a perfect world, that they would be together. Not only are Russell and Barbeau wonderful in their respective roles, but the rest of the cast is studded with B-movie icons. Western stalwart Lee Van Cleef is perfect as the steely puppet master, and character actor extraordinaire, Harry Dean Stanton, gives yet another distinctive oddball. Ernie Borgnine lights up the screen with his madcap grin and his googly eyes and the legend of soul, Isaac Hayes, exerts a screen presence like no other. Even in small roles, Carpenter regulars, Charles Cyphers, Buck Flower and Tom Atkins all give respectable performances. Oddly, the movie faults where one would think it would excel the most.

Dr. Fucking Loomis himself, Donald Pleasence, is so terribly miscast in this film, he nearly destroys the film. His president is without a doubt the least charismatic, likeable and identifiable character in the entire film. Not only is it impossible to imagine a wry Englishman as the president of the U.S. of A, but he is so boring and dull that there is no way he would ever be elected to the White House. He gives his character such a cold and removed character that it destroys the arc of the film. Not only do we care at all if Snake saves him or not, but when he finally screws him over in the end, there is a great lack of payoff. Pleasance plays his character with such a steel heart that he removes all fun from the scenes he inhabits. Cliff Robertson, who plays the president in L.A., does so with an over-the-top playfulness that allows us to laugh at his undoing in the end. We are not so lucky in New York.

Another flaw of Escape From New York is Carpenter's amateur staging of action. Scenes in the wrestling arena and on the mined 69th street bridge come across as flat and poorly edited. These are two scenes that should have been oozing with life, but as each one reaches its climax, the resulting effect is inert. When Snake drives the bat into the back of the wrestlers skull, it should have been a moment of triumph. As presented though, there is hardly any build up, and as the scene clumsily cuts from a long shot to a close-up, all sort of urgency is removed when Russell slowly swings the bat, in a clear example of forced staging. Given that this is Carpenter's first film with major stunts, his inexperience is predictable. He would more than prove himself in the action department years later with Big Trouble in Little China and Escape From L.A..

Escape From New York is far from a perfect work, but it is an original and ambitious piece of apocalyptic drama. While the execution may be lacking, the concept and performances (especially Russell's) still amaze to this day. It is a beautiful thing, watching Snake Plissken rebel against the authority of the United States government, in a way that could only be done in independent film. While Escape From L.A. stands as a more complete and satisfying work, New York is the one that started it all. It's rough edges stand out like the stubble on Plissken's face, but who can resist the cynical and assured delivery of the film's immortal line: "Call me Snake"?

Image Quality

The director/cinematographer team up of John Carpenter and Dean Cundey has been dynamite in films like Halloween, The Thing, and The Fog, but unfortunately New York is not in the same league. Unlike most of Carpenter's other films, this film lacks stylization, and is a visually unappealing film. Scantly lit throughout, the film has always had a dark and grainy quality. Many people complained about MGM's transfer on the original DVD, but really, when the source material is as gritty as New York's ultra-realistic photography, what more can you expect?


inline Image inline Image
New MGM DVD
Old MGM DVD



This new transfer, minted from a new high definition negative, still retains much of the grain of the original DVD. However, it has been brightened considerably, giving the film an increased level of depth. It is also a fair bit sharper the second time around, showing off the elaborate set design in much greater detail. Colors have also been corrected, featuring much more accurate saturation. The previous transfer was fairly muddy, and this one is a lot clearer. However, despite the improvement over the previous disc, this is still not a reference quality transfer. This is a grainy film, and it will always look that way. So while it will not break down any buildings, this transfer is still the best the film has looked on home video.

Sound

A new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is the only English track on this disc (a mono French track is also included). The mono track from the previous disc has been scrapped, so purists may want to hang on to the original disc. However, the new audio mix on this disc is more than acceptable. It remains largely in the front, but there are a few brief moments of strong surround engulfment. The scene where Snake & Co. get ambushed in their car with bricks and bats is particularly noticeable. There are a few discrete directional movements that permeate this mix as well. The track has been cleaned up some since the previous release, and should not disappoint Plissken fans.

Supplemental Material

inline Image"I thought you were dead." When a special edition was announced for this film back in 2001, Snake fans everywhere rejoiced. However, with the terrorist attacks on New York on 9/11, the possibility of seeing Snake in special edition form seemed a scrapped pipe dream. However, over two years later, MGM has finally delivered the DVD set they've been promising. This new 2 disc special edition ranks right up there with the best of Carpenter's DVD releases. Firstly are two great commentary tracks. The first, with Carpenter and Russell is ported over from the laserdisc, and is as entertaining as the film itself. Carpenter and Russell are full of anecdotes as they talk about Snake's motivations, Russell's dimples and a slightly aggressive wrestler. They also point out two of John Carpenter's blink-or-you'll-miss-ˇĆem cameos. While the track may not be as professional as the Halloween track, it is every bit as fun as the other Carpenter/Russell collaborations, and remains one of the most entertaining commentaries ever recorded.

The second commentary is a new inclusion on DVD, with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. This track takes a while to start, but as soon as it gets going it is an interesting listen, remaining mostly technical. It acts as a contrast to the Carpenter commentary, which is mostly just fun and games, while this is more procedural. I've got to admit, I love listening to Debra Hill. She is such a cutie, and always energetic about recollecting her films; her love for them is infectious. Both her and Alves talk at length about how effects shots and set design were done, and film geeks should eat up this "how to" track.

Moving on to disc two, the biggest supplement is a new 23 minute featurette, "Return to Escape From New York". Almost all of the principal cast and crew are back for this documentary: Carpenter, Russell, Barbeau, Stanton, Hayes, Hill, Alves, DP Dean Cundey and co-writer Nick Castle. Carpenter talks about how the film got off the ground, and how it was rewritten and polished. He and Russell talk about creating Snake Plissken, and how their disdain for authority motivated the character. Talk is then devoted to the shoot in St. Louis, casting and how the entire New York landscape was created and shot for the film. It is a very entertaining track, certainly to please fans of the film looking for more information, although like all good documentaries, it leaves the viewer wishing for more. Given the two extensive commentaries though, perhaps for overlapping issues, it is better that only this featurette is included.

inline Imageinline Imageinline Image



Next up is what is sure to be the Holy Grail for Carpenter collectors: the original, much talked about, 10 minute opening sequence. Bits and pieces were presented on the LD, but the entire thing is finally intact here, complete with alternate commentary by Carpenter/Russell. Although the film probably works better without it, it nonetheless provides some interesting exposition on the Snake Plissken character. After a bank robbery with a friend goes wrong, Snake shows remorse for his friend and is then captured. Utilizing some long Panaglide shots, it is well made and definitely worth checking out for Carpenter fans.

There is also a short little still-based featurette on how the new Snake Plissken comic was made. Short, but interesting. The original theatrical trailer, and two teasers are also included, although they are all fairly lackluster. Ads for The Fog and The Terminator are also included, as well as a gallery of other related MGM releases. Three still galleries come next: "Behind the Scenes," "Production Photos," and "Lobby Cards". They are all fairly short, but contain some good on-the-set footage of Carpenter and Debra Hill. A "Snake Bites" trailer, despite its clever name, is a totally useless and redundant collection of scenes to the beat of some obscure synth score. Lastly, those inquisitive navigators will find an Easter Egg with a whooooooole lotta' soul!

inline Imageinline Imageinline Image



Also included in this set is the first official "Snake Plissken Chronicles" comic. Snake Plissken is the perfect noir-ish hero, and translates nicely in comic form. It is a fun little read, and features a brief history on how the comic was made. Two hand-drawn transparency sheets are also included, very cool. Apparently Snake does not stop in comics either, as a leaflet for an upcoming Snake Plissken videogame is also included in this release. The overall quality of the packaging of this release has to be mentioned as well. The cover features and embossed Snake Plissken, which houses a fold out sleeve that houses the comic, the two discs and a brief message from John Carpenter. It is quite the set overall, and the eloquent packaging shows that MGM really put care into this release.

Final Thoughts

Although flawed, Escape From New York is a classic post-apocalyptic reworking of the Western conventions that so influence John Carpenter. Snake Plissken still today remains one of the most intriguing film characters of all time. This set improves on the previous MGM disc on all accounts: the video is sharper and lighter, the audio packs more punch, and the supplements will keep you entertained for hours. Real passion has been put into this release, from the quality menus to the great packaging. This release is everything a fan could hope for. Snake's films may be long done, but with this release and the upcoming comics and video games, his legacy will be sure to live on for many years to come. Party on, Snake!

Rating

Movie - A-
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

Technical Info.
  • Running time - 1 hour 39 minutes
  • Color
  • Rated R
  • 2 Discs
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1
  • French mono
Supplements
  • Commentary with director John Carpenter and Kurt Russell
  • Commentary with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves
  • "Return to Escape From New York" featurette
  • "The Making of Snake Plissken's Chronicles"
  • "Snake Bites" montage
  • Trailers
  • Still galleries
  • Alternate opening with optional commentary with Carpenter and Russell
  • Comic book

Other Pictures

 

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