‘I’m ready to kick your ass into the next world, war hero.’
In the last years of the 20th Century, Manhattan Island has become a fortified maximum security prison, leaving the inmates entirely to their own devices. Terrorists hijack Air Force One and force the plane down in the city, and a notorious criminal is charged with rescuing the President…
High-concept dystopian action thriller from director John Carpenter that handed actor Kurt Russell the role of a lifetime. A fine supporting cast and top-notch technical support helped to fashion one of the most influential films of the 1980s.
It’s the eve of a vital peace conference, and the U.S. President (Donald Pleasance) is en route with information on a cassette tape that may avert a global war. But his plane crashes in the middle of New York, a city under the control of the most dangerous criminals in America. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) takes a fleet of choppers in to retrieve him, but Pleasance has already fallen into the hands of a top crime boss, the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).
Forced to back off, Van Cleef conceives a desperate plan; send in career criminal Snake Plissken (Russell) to get Pleasance and the tape. The peace conference is almost over, so Russell has less than 24 hours to complete his mission, his cooperation assured by the two explosive capsules Van Cleef has injected into his neck.
Much imitated but never bettered, Carpenter’s smash-and-grab chase through an alternative anti-future still has the smarts and power to keep an audience on the hook. The world-building is efficient and persuasive, and like the narrative, it’s kept reasonably simple, details of the global situation scattered here and there through the story like breadcrumbs, providing just enough information to convey the stakes involved but not getting in the way of what is, at its heart, a simple story. We have a man on a mission behind enemy lines, cut off from outside help and hopelessly outnumbered.
It’s a familiar enough scenario, but distinct elements set it apart. First comes the setting; a nightmarish cityscape of rubbish-filled streets, crumbling buildings, and urban decay. Crucially, although the story takes place over the best part of a day, Carpenter never allows daylight to intrude. The apocalypse has already happened here, even though the outside world is still hanging on by its fingernails. Cinematographer Dean Cundey and Production Designer Joe Alves combine their skills to create a coherent world that seems all too credible. Eccentric genius Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) may be refining petrol in his front room with the aid of a small oil derrick, but it’s just crazy enough to seem perfectly feasible. Events also play out to a superb electronic score by Carpenter and Alan Howarth, which helps create the unique ambience that sets the film apart as much as the dynamic, visceral action and its iconic anti-hero.
Russell’s performance as Plissken is note-perfect. The snarling, almost bored line delivery, the leather jacket and eye patch, the razor stubble and burning cigarette, he’s the whole package; a Man with No Name for the pulp sci-fi universe. Crucially, he’s not a pumped-up body-builder throwing out corny one-liners while he effortlessly offs the bad guys. Instead, he’s a man who makes mistakes, gets seriously hurt and is forced to constantly improvise rather than being permanently one wisecrack ahead of his enemies. The film is dark and cynical enough that we genuinely don’t know if he will make it out before his head explodes, and that keeps the audience with him every step of the way.
Originally, the film included an opening scene where Russell is caught while pulling a bank heist with partner Taylor (Joe Unger). Carpenter cut this for pace, preferring that the audience be thrown straight into the main story. That’s a valid reason, of course, but there’s a far better one; during the sequence, Russell goes back for Unger in a futile effort to save him from the cops. Retaining this would have undermined the mystique established in his scenes with Van Cleef and confirmed by the constant references to his rumoured death. Yes, his humanity does peep through a tiny bit on occasion in the finished film, but that’s much later in the proceedings and feels earned by his interactions with the other characters. In the beginning, the audience thinks that Plissken is capable of anything.
These other characters are vividly brought to life by an excellent ensemble headed by the legendary Ernest Borgnine. The interplay between his amiable Cabbie, Stanton’s unscrupulous, fast-talking Brain and Adrienne Barbeau’s Maggie feels completely natural and unforced, a testament to three professionals who make it look so effortless. Englishman Pleasance may seem a strange choice for an American President, but, again, he’s an absolute joy to watch, by turns pompous, cowardly and borderline psychotic. Van Cleef is also riveting as the police chief who may be enjoying his job a little too much, and his scenes with Russell are a masterclass in economy and understatement.
There’s also a lot of attention given to the more minor roles, with actors given unusual signature looks, thanks to excellent work by the costume and makeup departments. Frank Doubleday’s hissing henchman Romero is the most obvious example, but the same care and attention are present with characters that appear only briefly. And who can forget wrestler Ox Baker, whose startling appearance and physique give Russell a truly uncomfortable few minutes in the arena towards the end of the picture?
The film was a box office hit on release, making four times its original budget, but it proved to have an even greater afterlife on home media, cementing its reputation as a cult classic. What isn’t obvious watching the film, even all these years later, is what a small production budget Carpenter had at his disposal, a scant 6 million dollars. It’s a testament to the creativity and professionalism of the entire production crew that they could create so much with so little. In particular, some of the miniature work is stunning.
Some of the tech employed by Van Cleef’s police force looks hopelessly outdated now, but it works because it complements the grungy, rundown aesthetic of the city. State-of-the-art computer animation and images would look too clean and out of place, as would smartphones and CGI. This is a real world with a solid, practical existence, not the smooth perfection of a virtual environment created on a laptop. Similarly, we may not see much of the world outside the prison, but its rough edges help establish that it’s teetering on the brink, emphasising the last-gasp, Hail Mary nature of Russell’s mission.
One place where Carpenter’s film really hit home was with European audiences and filmmakers. The explosion of the home video in the early 1980s opened up a brand new market for the Italian Film Industry in particular, which had been in the doldrums for a few years after the golden age of Spaghetti Westerns, Mafia thrillers, Giallo, Eurospys and Peplum. Carpenter’s film and George Miller’s ‘Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior’ (1982) provided a template for all kinds of cut-price post-apocalyptic action that swamped high street rental stores over the next few years.
Carpenter began his filmmaking career with the science-fiction project, ‘Dark Star’ (1974), created with Dan O’Bannon, who would later write the screenplay for ‘Alien’ (1979), among several other notable films. Although it would be a few years before the film attained the status of a cult classic, it opened doors for him, and slasher ‘Halloween’ (1978) followed, becoming one of the most financially successful independent films of all time and birthing a franchise that is still ongoing at the time of writing (and may never end!) His subsequent career may be inconsistent in terms of financial success, but all his films crackle with creativity and ideas. Ironically, one of his failings is that broadly speaking, the more budget he’s been given, the less successful the project. Carpenter and Russell collaborated on the sequel ‘Escape from L.A.’ (1996), which had a budget almost ten times that of the original but only made back just over half its costs.
A classic and a benchmark of action and science-fiction cinema. Many followed; only a tiny handful got anywhere near it.