A review requested by Kent H, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Obviously, 1981's Escape from New York is a transitional film in the career of director John Carpenter: his fifth feature (seventh if we include his television movies) is the one that finds him starting to really play with the resources of the Hollywood studios for the first time, and along with the immediately subsequent The Thing, it finds him somewhere in between the wiry little production of a Halloween and the unattractively clumsy commercialism of Christine. Less obviously, it's also, arguably, the film that first saw Carpenter lose a little of his shine as a bright young genius. Of the preceding six feature-length projects on his resume, all of them were largely different, though some of them (epecially Halloween, Someone's Watching Me! and The Fog) are pulling from the same toolkit. Escape from New York, however, is the first film in his career that feels in some ways redundant. I could easily say - and do so without hesitation - that The Fog is a movie from the director of Halloween that isn't as good, but I wouldn't go so far as to argue that The Fog therefore is a disappointing waste of the Halloween director's time; they're too far apart from each other. Whereas Escape from New York is clearly a film from the director of Assault on Precinct 13 that is not quite as good - the gap there is smaller than the gap between Halloween and The Fog - and does enough of the same things in broadly the same way (especially the Carpenter-penned music, which is virtually a direct lift from the earlier film) that it's really hard not to think of it as a step down.

Not, mind you, a particularly severe step down: if Escape from New York isn't quite in the top tier of Carpenter films, it is quite firmly ensconced near the top of the second tier. Knowing that the director and his co-writer Nick Castle (whose handful of writing credits are well and good, but surely we all know him best as the man behind the mask as Michael in Halloween) were consciously channeling Death Wish makes it clear just how great Escape from New York really is: the Carpenter film takes the 1974 revenge flick's vague notion of the city as a concrete and glass and steel jungle and goes to such infinitely richer places with it that only a madman would think to compare the two.

The film begins a little bit clunkily: onscreen text informs us that by 1988, crime had risen by 400 percent, and then a narrator (an uncredited Jamie Lee Curtis, in her last performance under Carpenter's direction) recites the exact same information, before going on to tell us the rest of the backstory without text. It's a weird little inelegant stumble right at the start, but it's quickly forgotten as we're told that Manhattan is now a walled-off prison camp where all the criminals of the United States get dumped to form their own hideous society of post-apocalyptic lawlessness. Then we skip ahead to 1997, for one brutal night on this hell island. Like most of Carpenter's best films, Escape from New York has a direct, thoroughly stripped-down narrative: the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) has had his plane hijacked on the eve of a major peace summit, and his escape left him stranded on Manhattan, where he has been taken hostage by the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the most powerful gang leader on the island. The terms of his release: all of New York's criminals must be allowed onto the mainland. The government wanting to avoid this very badly, and wanting to avoid a dead president equally as much, concludes that they need to fight fire with fire: to fight the criminals, they send ex-special forces soldier and current badass bank robber "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell) to the island, with an injection that will explode his body from within if he doesn't return with the president in roughly 22 hours. Thus begins a voyage through the ugly corners of Manhattan to meet the curious inhabitants thereof, most importantly Snake's guide Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), the survivalist Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau).

Across the spectrum of reactions to this film, no matter how much one adores its world building and sense of rotted style, or finds it unfocused, plotless nonsense - and both responses are equally defensible - one thing that I think can unite all opinions is that Snake, and Russell's performance of him, are the best thing in Escape from New York. We have here a marriage of character, actor, and writer/director of the first order - while I neither think that Snake is the best character in a Carpenter film, nor the best performance Russell gave for the director, it can easily and correctly be argued that we have here the most perfect, iconic movie hero in either man's career. Snake is part of a tradition of morally grey antiheroes working for good from selfish reasons, supporting the Powers That Be right a clear shudder of self-disgust at being involved in glad-handing bureaucracy - we can all rattle off examples of the form, I am sure, but not more than a small handful who surpass Snake's sheer presence and personality. In all of the annals of bitterly nihilistic tough guys, there might not be a moment that is so perfect, in my estimation, as the final-scene line "I'm too tired, maybe later" that Snake responds sourly to a man asking if Snake planned to kill him; the chilliness and indifference and the underlying hopelessness that Russell feeds into that line are astonishing. For the key to Snake isn't that he hates things; it's that he is constantly disappointed in things turning out exactly as badly as he anticipates. It is this that makes him so much more interesting and piercing than just another all-capable hunk of meat in just another action movie.

The film's episodic structure gives the film a vibe that's surprisingly close to The Odyssey (Carpenter and Castle were apparently aiming for a road movie structure, but what is The Odyssey if not the wellspring for all subsequent travelogues in Western narrative art?), and I love it for that, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that it doesn't leave the film facing in no particular direction for much of its running time. And this is simply not the best strength of the director's filmography: starting with Assault on Precinct 13, all of his finest movies, no matter what the genre, have a dreadful intensity of unflagging momentum, and even with its 22-hour ticking clock, Escape from New York very often would rather sit back - for far too long, in the case of the first 20 minutes or so, which move far too methodically for an action movie with a spare narrative hook - and enjoy the elaborate run-down beauty of the locations (Joe Alves served as production designer, but much of the movie is the unadorned foulness of St. Louis, MO and East St. Louis, IL as they existed at that time), shot in exceptionally noir-like shadows by Dean Cundey that fulfill the genre's great use of dark corners in blighted cities as shadowy pools from which the characters emerge, except when they don't, and that clotted blackness provides more of the moral heft of the film than the script would ever dare do explicitly.

And, above all, to let us watch Snake being Snake; the other characters are all colorful exaggerations, especially the Duke, lustfully played by Hayes and granted with the film's clear-cut best design choice - chandeliers on his car! - but, to pick a different literary analogue, they're all the denizens of Wonderland compared to Snake's Alice. We marvel at their ungainly weirdness, but we identify with and respond to his silently nuanced behavior around them, the one great human figure in what amounts to a fantasy otherwise.

My memory of the film is always of the characters, the general aura of the design, and the omnipresent feeling of gloom; I'm always a little bit surprised to recall that this is basically an action film, and this brings me back to that Assault on Precinct 13 comparison. Simply put, I think that Escape from New York spends much more time on its action than the action justifies; it's not as tightly blocked out as it is in that film, where the precise manipulation of limited space and our sense of time passing result in some absolutely tremendous setpieces. There's not a single setpiece in Escape from New York that I remember with any particular clarity for very long after watching it; the combined effort of the last half hour, as the movie starts to pick up a clear sense of momentum, certainly makes an impression, but nothing within that half-hour. The fight between Snake and the Duke's big man mountain Slag (Ox Baker), for example: it's a perfectly solid bit of fighting, with a suitably brutal punchline, but less than a day after watching it, I can't name any particular camera angles or cuts or grace notes of choreography that really "pop" in the scene, like I can for the showpiece fistfight in Carpenter's They Live. And it's been more than a half decade since I saw that film last.

Even with that being the case, that the film is a bit shaky in its action, there's still so much about it that I wouldn't trade for anything, even beyond Russell's one-of-a-kind antihero; this film's vision of a rundown future is absolutely terrific, for one thing, as much a parody of the trends in urban thrillers in the years preceding it as anything else, and coming out the same year as Mad Max 2 and one before Blade Runner, it avoids the incredibly common trap of simply copying one or the other of those movies. Its urban squalor looks impressively like 1981 extrapolated forward with technology used to compensate for that squalor rather than ironically counterpointing it, and if only because it came out so early in the '80s post-apocalypse cycle, Escape from New York manages to be one of the most unique of all the entries in that frequently derivative genre. Having maybe the best protagonist in all of the genre's history simply seals the deal that, imperfect as it can be, this is still something special.