Snake Plissken probably made more kids come in the 80s than Pamela Anderson did in the 90s. Regardless, I never saw this film depicting his mission to retrieve the president of the US out of a barren prison, AKA New York. Finally someone requested me to review this film and I had to watch it. I didn't mind much, seeing as how I liked Carpenter's work overall (Cigarette Burns and Halloween especially). But... Carpenter is not an action movie-director. His best work is in horror and thriller. He is not a man who makes good and intense action scenes. He's the master of build-up, but the format of action movie doesn't pride itself on build-up, but big payoffs instead, and Carpenter lacks the necessary skill to pull them off excitingly. He has many chances, but almost every action scene here feels rather lackluster as Snake blasts through foes with his ridicilous-looking SMG or his fists. The only action scene that gripped me to the edge of my seat was the climax, and that's pretty much because a climax with that good a setting is somewhat hard to mess up. Carpenter's slow, realistic style of filming and editing doesn't suit balls-to-the-walls-action flicks like Escape From New York very well, it makes the action look depressing and slow. I'm not a fan of quick cuts, but I do think they should be applied in films like these if you can't make intense scenes otherwise. In a prior action movie of Carpenter's, Assault On Precinct 13, he managed to make the action interesting. He did so because the film was one half build-up, one half pay-off. Escape is more scattered than that; it has an action scene there, a dialogue scene here, two action scenes there, a fistfight here... It doesn't have a structure based around action, but it has a structure that's based around what the story requires, and the story does unfortunately require action throughout the film due to the predicaments Snake finds himself in. This is why I believe Carpenter was the wrong person to direct such a movie.
If the directing goes wrong, I think the writing goes right. It's full of surprises and believable dilemmas for Snake to face. The basic setting also got me thinking; say that Manhattan would really be turned into a giant prison. How the hell would this be explained to the people in it? Sure, it's a setting many years in the future (the futuristic world of 1997!), but how could any goverment ever pursue all the people in a friggin' densely populated island just leave with no problems? "Sorry folks, we're going to turn this place into a prison, so ya'll best leave". I just had some problems buying that, but honestly I won't hold it against the script at all, just a little weird nitpicking I had. As stated previously, I think the script was rather surprising. There's a delightful scene early on when Snake arrives on the island; he goes into a cafe to hide from crazy people running around outside, and meets a blonde woman. They start talking. Turns out she wants him to take her with him to the outside. At this point I was thinking "This chick'll be a tag-on guide or something for Snake, what a cliched plot decision". Then, all the sudden, CRAZY PEOPLE BURST OUT OF THE FLOOR AND RIP HER DOWN AND KILL HER! How awesome! Snake hardly even tries helping her out, instead just running the fuck out of there. The movie is filled with these little surprises that sometimes succesfully manage to break action-movie cliches into pieces and replace them with original writing decisions. Also, the ending surprised me by being a rather multilayered and ambiguous-ending. It's something that you might think about after seeing it, and it completely came out of the blue to me as I never expected it coming. However, I should say that all these little things would be of no use if Snake Plissken wouldn't be in this movie. He makes it all worthwhile. First of all, Kurt Russell's performance is very good. He knows what the character is like at heart and manages to act out like he has a true, deep understanding of the character; he feels like he has been Snake his entire life instead of just the section of it that we witness within the film. But what makes him an even better character is his personality. The writing of Plissken is ingenious. He's built to be a true hardass, who, based on the ending, does have a heart too despite the tough exterior. His personality, from Kurt's performance to every line of dialogue he says, works in favour of the film tremendously.
And that's why it's sad that all the other characters are just side characters. They're all there to support Snake's character on his quest. They have cardboard-personalities that never change, and the bad guy is really pretty darn unmenacing. With a cast like this I was really expecting all the secondary characters to be atleast interesting, instead I almost yawned every time a new one was introduced since I knew they'd just pop in, say their lines, then go away. It feels like a waste when you have an actor like Lee Van Cleef and all he does is be mean throughout the movie without ever being really all that interesting. From one thing to another, there's still a few things I need to call good. The special effects (models, CGI) and the set design is all very good for the low budget Escape had. Sure, you can tell the CGI is CGI, but atleast it isn't used to simulate actual real-life things, but instead only in computer monitors for example. The small-scale models and blue-screening is very well done, and at a few points it actually had me fooled to the extent that I thought they really shot footage of a small plane landing on the WTC. Then I remembered the budget and laughed it off. The prisoner-torn New York also looks great throughout; taking lots of things from older apocalypse-movies, the set designers created a realistically grim New York; you can still feel that it's NY, but you also go "something really bad has happened here". I think that's good. One thing that wasn't so good though on the production-stage is the props. This movie has some really ridicilous props throughout, seriously. From Snake's enormous silenced SMG to a huge red presidential ball safety capsule (or something) to a car with chandeliers as decorations(!) this film really made me laugh a lot with the prop design, and with the serious tone of the movie, it isn't a good thing.
In the end, this movie would've been a nice treat, had it been handed to a different director. Carpenter is not a master of action, and it shows. Also, even though I didn't mention it much, like in Carpenter's movies usually, the score is fantastic... to listen to on it's own. Unfortunately it doesn't really create that much excitement or intensity during the action scenes. And as an action movie, the lack of intensity or sense thereof, is a minus.