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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/30/00

Escape from New York
1981 (2000) - Avco-Embassy (MGM)

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Escape from New York Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/B-/D

Specs and Features

99 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, full-frame (1.33:1), double-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (32 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"You are the Duke of New York. You're A number one!"

The year is 1997. Crime in the United States is out of control. To help curb the crime rate, Manhattan Island has been converted into a high-security containment facility for some of the country's most hardened criminals. Once you're there, you're there for life. It's like a Roach Motel - criminals go in, but they don't come out. Unfortunately, while traveling to a peace summit, Air Force One is hijacked and the President of the United States (Carpenter regular Donald Pleasence) crash lands in the Manhattan facility. Meanwhile, a war hero and savage criminal named Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is being transferred to the facility. He's offered a deal - bring back the President and he'll be excused of all his crimes. But he's only got twenty-four hours to do it and, as an added incentive, there's a lethal explosive charge in Plissken's body that will be ignited if he doesn't make it back in time.

It's a simple story and director John Carpenter doesn't waste any time getting to the real meat of the action. Many of Carpenter's better films share a common central premise - a person or group of people being held captive in a remote space. Movies like The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13 and Prince of Darkness are all based on this same principle, but Escape from New York has the most fun with it. You've got the evil overlord named Duke, criminal babes that look like prostitutes, a slimy President that's not worth saving (and you thought this election was bad!) and, of course, an endless supply of bullets.

Admittedly, Escape from New York is a dated film. 1997 doesn't really come to mind now when you think "futuristic" and the synthesized musical score, although quite memorable, is laughable at times. Still, the film manages (even now) to hold up as solid entertainment. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell created, in Snake Plissken, one of action cinema's most memorable anti-heroes. You shouldn't like this guy. He's a smart-ass, he's mean, unpredictable and smarmy. But even with these characteristics stacked against him, Plissken is likable. Through a combination of simple but effective writing and an exuberant and exaggerated performance by Russell, Plissken becomes a force to be reckoned with. There are a host of fun performances in Escape from New York (including a turn by Isaac Hayes as one bad mutha), but this is truly Russell's film from beginning to end. He relishes every second of it and makes the movie a mean, scary and fun ride.

The theme here is good movie, bad disc. If I could grab MGM by the collar and shake them, I would. There is absolutely no reason for this disc to look as bad as it does. This disc looks like it's been to hell and back. There's just not a whole lot of good I can say about it, but for the sake of fairness I'll try. It's anamorphic and it's in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. There, I said it. That's the good. Sadly, the word that comes to mind when I think about this disc is "dingy". It's just not a very good-looking picture. The source print is riddled with splotches, specks and artifacts. As soon as you pop the disc in you can see problem blacks, which just made my heart sink. The colors are really faded and washed out, and the overall quality of the picture is hazy and beset with heavy grain. Escape from New York was filmed with an intentionally muted color palette, but this DVD is not an accurate representation of that look. It wasn't meant to look THIS bad. Maybe the film is badly in need of restoration, and MGM figures fans will just be happy to have it on DVD at all. But I, for one (and I know of plenty others), am pretty teed off that one of the action/Sci-fi genre's greatest flicks (and still one of Carpenter's best films) looks this bad.

On the audio side, the sound is a serviceable Dolby Surround track that de-emphasizes use of the rear channels. Most of the action is contained in the front of the sound field, but there are some effective and understated panning effects to add a little excitement to the mix. As for extra features, there's the film's theatrical trailer. It too sports quite a bit of wear and tear, and it's not fun to look at. New Line's laserdisc (from a few years back) supplemented the film with a commentary track by Carpenter and Russell, a better looking theatrical trailer and a making-of featurette (with a pseudo-deleted scene). Sadly, none of that is here. I wish I could tell you that there's more, but there isn't. All in all, it's a pretty lame disc.

I hope this DVD isn't a sign of what John Carpenter's The Fog (also an Avco-Embassy film to be released by MGM) will look like when makes its way to DVD next year. The previous laserdisc release of that film also boasted a Carpenter commentary track, an isolated score and a blooper reel. I'll cut MGM a little slack for the lack of features, since they more than likely weren't able to obtain the rights to the Carpenter/Russell commentary track from New Line. I can deal with a disc that's light on features... if it's got a picture worth watching. But their release of Escape from New York doesn't. I can't really recommend this disc to anyone. If you absolutely must have it, you've been warned. Prepare to be underwhelmed.

Dan Kelly
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