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review added: 12/17/03



Escape from New York
Special Edition DVD Collector's Set - 1981 (2003) - Avco Embassy (MGM)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Escape from New York: Special Edition DVD Collector's Set Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B-

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
99 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, custom digipack packaging with embossed slipcover, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ???), audio commentary (with writer/director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell), audio commentary (with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves), animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (32 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (Mono), subtitles: English, Spanish and French, Closed Captioned

Disc Two - Supplemental Material
NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Return to Escape from New York documentary, The Making of John Carpenter's Snake Plissken Chronicles Comic Book featurette, Snake Bites trailer montage, missing reel #1 (with optional audio commentary by Carpenter and Russell), original theatrical trailer, 2 teaser trailers, behind the scenes, production photos, and lobby cards galleries, 3 DVD previews (for Jeremiah, The Terminator and The Fog), radio spot Easter egg, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 Surround)


It's one thing to earn an "A Film By" credit, that ubiquitous declaration of authorship that appears at the front of everything from Goodfellas to Glitter. It's quite another to emblazon your name in a possessive above the title, more a proclamation of ownership than auteurism. It takes a lot of chutzpah to insist on something like that, especially in the frequently ghettoized world of science fiction, fantasy and horror filmmaking. Even Wes Craven only got away with it once. But the films of John Carpenter are such unique products of his own vision that the appearance of his name before the title elicits more grins of excitement and expectation than groans of pretension. Nobody else could have made these movies in quite the same way. Without any question, it is John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter's The Thing, and, of course, John Carpenter's Escape from New York.

Released in 1981, Escape from New York marked the second teaming of Carpenter and Kurt Russell, who had previously worked together on the 1979 TV-movie Elvis. Taking a chance that nobody else in the world would have taken, Carpenter cast Russell waaaaaay against type as Snake Plissken, possibly the baddest-ass in a year heavy with bad-asses (including Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior, James Caan in Thief and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark). The movie's premise was simplicity itself. In the not-too-distant future of 1997, Manhattan has been turned into a giant prison servicing the entire country. A huge wall has been erected around the island and the city is now even more of a Roach Motel than it was in the real world. Once you go in, you don't get out. Terrorists highjack Air Force One, causing the plane to crash inside the prison. The prisoners grab the President (Donald Pleasence) and hold him for ransom. At the same time, legendary criminal Snake Plissken is on Liberty Island, waiting to be processed and put inside. Snake is offered a deal from Hauk, the US Police Commissioner. Go in, rescue the President, and get out in 24 hours and receive a full pardon. Realizing that he's going in one way or the other, Snake takes the deal.

Carpenter's New York-as-prison concept holds up even today after Times Square has been cleaned up and everybody in the world adores New York City. So imagine how irresistible it was in 1981 when most of the country imagined New York to be hell on earth. Back then, Escape from New York didn't seem all that far from the truth, especially if your only exposure to the city had been through movies like Death Wish and The Warriors. Quite simply, Escape from New York boasts one of the best high concepts in the history of science fiction cinema. Amazingly enough, Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle populate the world with memorable characters, brought to life by a terrific ensemble of actors. Both helping and hindering Snake in his journey (sometimes at the same time) are Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine in one of his most enjoyable performances of the era), Brain (the always entertaining Harry Dean Stanton), and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau at her absolute sexiest). Ruling the prison is the Duke of New York, played with casual menace by Isaac Hayes, and his major domo Romero (images of Frank Doubleday in character are among the movie's most memorable promotional stills). And casting Lee Van Cleef as Hauk was nothing short of inspired.

Even with all this going for it, Escape from New York would fall apart without a strong central character. Fortunately, Russell attacked the role of Snake Plissken with everything he had. With his long hair, eyepatch, and winter camouflage pants, Snake became an immediate icon. But what makes Snake such a memorable character is his total lack of interest in anyone or anything other than himself. He doesn't go out of his way to help people and he doesn't look for trouble. But when it finds him anyway, he's more than ready to deal with it. Both Carpenter and Russell should be commended for staying so true to the character throughout the film. It would be easy to try to make the character more sympathetic or traditionally heroic. Instead, they realize that this man has a job to do and a very short time to do it in. Anything that gets in the way of him completing this mission is a distraction and Snake Plissken just can't be bothered with it.

Fans have been waiting a long time for a special edition of Escape from New York and MGM has rewarded that patience with a packed two-disc set. First the good news. In every respect, this is a marked improvement over MGM's original release. Visually, this is as fine a presentation of this film as you're going to get. Dean Cundey's cinematography is extremely dark but the new anamorphic transfer presents it in its best possible light. The picture never deepens into impenetrable mud, nor does it ever seem artificially brightened. I did detect some minor color bleeding here and there, particularly around the President's bright red escape egg, but overall was more than satisfied. I genuinely believe this is the best Escape from New York will ever look.

The film has also been given a 5.1 surround sound overhaul that, while lacking some punch, is more than sufficient. There is not a great deal of action in the rear field, mainly old standbys like choppers flying past, but some sequences, like Snake following an inmate calling out the "crazies" by banging on manhole covers, come to life very nicely. Audio purists will object to the absence of the film's original mix but audio purists have plenty of titles to object to in that regard, so chalk this up as just another in a long line of disappointments for them.

Special features on the first disc are limited to a pair of audio commentaries. The older of the two is by Carpenter and Russell and was originally recorded for laserdisc several years back. As Michael Gillis said in the interview, it does stand the test of time. This is one of those commentaries for people who hate commentaries. It has a warm, you-are-there feel with loads of good information and several laugh-out-loud moments. Porting this track over from the laserdisc was absolutely the right thing to do. The new commentary, by producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves, suffers in comparison but is by no means a bad track. Hill and Alves fill in a number of blanks from the first track and provide some much-needed catching up. This commentary is the only place on the disc you'll hear so much as a mention of the 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A..

The second disc includes at least two very good features. The documentary Return to Escape from New York puts forward a lot of information in a relatively short time. However, there is some overlap between the commentaries and the doc. Considering that Carpenter, Russell, Hill, and Alves have already had their say, I would have preferred to hear more from the rest of the group, including Nick Castle, Dean Cundey, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes, and Adrienne Barbeau. And whatever happened to Frank Doubleday? I would have loved to see him twenty years later.

More anticipated is the original first reel of the film long thought to be lost. It's fascinating to see it, and even more interesting to watch with Carpenter and Russell's commentary, but like most deleted scenes, it was better left on the cutting room floor. The scene adds nothing to the meat of the film and, even on its own terms, is pretty confusing. While it isn't great filmmaking, it is undeniably an important find and worth watching. But in the end, the deleted scene is, as Russell says in the commentary, "a good trim". Also included on this disc are three different trailers for the film and three galleries of behind-the-scenes and production stills.

Now for the bad news. That's about it as far as the worthwhile extras go. The effort to shed some light on the Snake Plissken Chronicles comic book could have been worthwhile, albeit still just a bit of shameless marketing. But the making-of "featurette" is no more than another still gallery with photos and text. It's like a "how-comics-are-made" article that would appear in an issue of Disney Adventures or some other magazine aimed at kids. An interesting piece could be done on the comic book, interviewing Carpenter, Hill and Russell to find out what their involvement is and why they OK'd it, talking to the creatives at Hurricane Comics, and really showing us how the project came together. This is not that piece. The comic book itself, housed inside a sleeve in the digipack, isn't bad but it isn't great, either. It's no better or worse than any other licensed-character comic book spin-off I've seen. (By the way, also tucked in that little sleeve is a promotional flyer for the upcoming Namco video game, which sports the unwieldy title John Carpenter's Snake Plissken's Escape). As for the Snake Bites "trailer montage"... I have no idea what this is or what you're supposed to get out of it. I guess it's for people who like Escape from New York but want to watch it in less than three minutes.

I should add there is also a pretty amusing Easter egg on the second disc. On the main menu screen, go down to the Deleted Scenes option and arrow right. The New York skyline will appear on the computer monitor graphic. Press enter and you'll hear a radio spot presumably geared for urban markets that makes it sound like Escape from New York is all about the Duke and that Isaac Hayes is the star of the show.

Escape from New York is not John Carpenter's best film but it's an easy movie to fall in love with because it's just so much fun. It's a great execution of a neat idea and at a brisk 99 minutes, the movie never runs the risk of outliving its welcome. Snake Plissken fans will want to watch the movie over and over again, so for that reason alone, MGM's latest incarnation of the film is worth picking up. And while the extras may not be as bountiful as you might expect from a two-disc set, a few of them are truly terrific. With only minor caveats, Escape from New York is a worthy addition to the burgeoning library of John Carpenter special editions.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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