Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Escape From New York (1981)
Studio Line: MGM - 1997. New York city is now a maximum security prison. Breaking out is impossible. Breaking in is insane.

Kurt Russell (Stargate) stars in a high-velocity sci-fi action-thriller from director John Carpenter (co-written by Nick Castle) that sets the screen ablaze with heart-stopping suspense, outrageous stunts and imaginative special effects. Bristling with riveting chases and hard-hitting fight sequences, Escape From New York is your passport to nonstop excitement!

In a world ravaged by crime, the entire island of Manhattan has been converted into a prison which houses the world's most brutal inmates. And when the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) crash lands inside, only one man can bring him back: Snake Plissken (Russell), a notorious outlaw and former Special Forces war hero who, in exchange for a full pardon, descends into the decayed city and wages a blistering war against the captors. But time is short: in 24 hours, an explosive charge planted inside Snake's body will end the mission -- and his life -- unless he succeeds!

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Season Hubley
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles Spanish, French; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 32 chapters; rated R; 99 min.; $19.98; street date 11/21/00.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - John Carpenter

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/B/D-

We all know the classic question: ďif a tree fell in the woods and no one was there to hear it, would it make a sound?Ē But how about this one: ďif Manhattan was turned into a giant prison, would anyone notice the difference?Ē Such is the premise of Escape From New York, a decent action movie from over-rated director John Carpenter.

Frankly, Iíve never been able to understand why Carpenter continues to get work. The guyís reputation was built around one certified classic - the popular and enormously influential Halloween from 1978 - and a few other minor successes like 1984ís Starman and 1982ís The Thing (which actually flopped theatrically but built a strong following in later years).

Escape From New York falls into the category of these mini-hits. It certainly wasnít a bomb, but it didnít rock the box office either. As with The Thing, itís maintained good popularity on video, though the former remains the more prominent title.

However, since the mid-Eighties, Carpenter has produced nothing but duds. From 1988ís They Live! to 1998ís Vampires - his most recent offering - each film has died a quick and painful death. That list includes the sequel to EFNY, 1996ís generally-disliked Escape From L.A..

Due to a laserdisc clearance sale, I actually saw that film before the original, which Iíd never watched prior to this DVD. The sequel wasnít a total disaster, but EFNY is clearly the superior movie. Note that I didnít say itís a great flick, because itís not. However, EFNY has enough going for it to make it a generally fun experience.

The story takes place in the then-future of 1997. As I previously mentioned, Manhattan has become a prison island, one from which no one ever leaves. Until the president crash lands there, that is, and a rescue mission has to take place.

That attempt involves only one man: super-tough Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a war hero turned crook who is given a shot at freedom if he pulls off this task. For reasons unknown, Russell plays Plissken in full-on Clint Eastwood mode, but surprisingly, it works; yeah, itís an imitation, but itís a fun and frisky one that never felt as derivative as it should.

As for the movie itself, I found it enjoyable, though it never quite lived up to the fascinating possibilities of its premise. Granted, the movie probably would have seemed fresher in 1981 than it does now, mostly because so many post-apocalyptic films have emerged in the interim. No, EFNY doesnít take place after any kind of doomsday war that scarred the earth, but it may as well have considering the desolate landscape of the movieís Manhattan. This is a moody and dark place where freaky gangs run wild. Hey, everyone thereís a vicious criminal - one would expect such an outcome!

Essentially EFNY manages to remain interesting and fairly compelling from start to finish, but I canít say it included any distinct highs. In some ways, it seems surprisingly lackluster; scenes exist that probably should have been really exciting but they often appear a little ho-hum.

That said, the movie features no substantial lows either. At worst, it remains entertaining and watchable. Itís somewhat mediocre at times, but still packs enough of a punch to be largely winning. With a killer premise, it would have taken a lot to truly botch Escape From New York. At times John Carpenter flirts with disaster, but the film always stays on the positive side of the equation and makes for a generally fun flick

The DVD:

Escape From New York appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen side was rated for this review. While the movie remained consistently watchable, I thought the picture seemed fairly bland and mediocre.

Sharpness usually appeared pretty good. Softness interfered with some wider shots, but I thought most of the film looked adequately well-defined and accurate. Moirť effects and jagged edges seemed largely absent, and I detected few artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV.

Print flaws posed some problems. Grain was evident on a number of occasions, and I also noticed occasional bouts of speckles and grit. Some larger black spots appeared, and large scratches occurred at the 31:14 mark. The print wasnít in horrible shape, but it could have looked better.

Colors seemed fairly mediocre, though they werenít a major issue since the film featured a very limited palette. EFNY was a dark movie, and very few hues appeared. For the most part, they seemed fairly accurate though somewhat pale. A few scenes utilized red lighting, which appeared a little heavy though acceptable.

Since EFNY offered such a dark setting, black levels became especially important. Unfortunately, they werenít terribly solid. Dark tones looked somewhat faded and gray. They werenít atrocious, but they definitely should have been deeper. Shadow detail appeared similarly drab, with low-light situations that came across as slightly excessively opaque. Ultimately, I thought EFNY offered a passable but unspectacular image.

Better but inconsistent was the filmís Dolby Surround soundtrack. Easily the strongest aspect of this mix stemmed from its soundfield. I thought the audio provided a surprisingly engaging and active environment that seemed much fresher than one would expect from a nearly 20-year-old track.

The forward spectrum displayed a lot of lively and discrete sound from all three speakers, and the audio usually blended together neatly. The directionality of the front channels was strong, though occasionally some misfiring occurred; for example, at about the 45:06 mark, some speech fluctuated annoyingly between the center and right speakers. This happened on a few additional occasions as well. For the most part, sounds stayed properly oriented, but this kind of sloppiness took place more frequently than I would have liked.

Surround usage seemed quite strong. The rears provided a generally positive ambient experience, and they really kicked in nicely during some of the louder sequences. Especially terrific were any scenes that involved helicopters. Those vehicles sounded bold and bright and swirled about effectively.

Based on the soundfield itself, EFNY should have earned a high grade, especially since I ďcurveĒ audio ratings to account for technological capabilities of different eras. Unfortunately, the sound quality itself forced me to take off some points. Dialogue generally seemed fairly clear and distinct; though some definite edge appeared at times, intelligibility was fine and speech usually came across naturally.

The filmís dated but workable synthesizer score presented nice dynamic range and often offered solid low end. Actually, the latter was both a blessing and a curse. While the bass thumped solidly most of the time, some low end came across as unnaturally distorted. In fact, I started to fear that my speakers had blown, for the tone resembled that effect. My speakers are just fine, but some aspects of the mix made them seem broken.

Effects presented the most significant problems during EFNY. Except for those wonderful helicopters, they seemed consistently thin and unrealistic. At times the effects came across as shrill and I also heard periodic distortion from those elements. A low-key drama or a comedy could more easily get away with weak effects, but since EFNY featured so many of them in such prominent ways, the relatively poor quality of those elements detracted from my involvement in the film. However, the solid soundfield and a few other good aspects of the track let it earn a still-positive ďBĒ.

Less exciting are the DVDís supplements. All we get is the filmís original theatrical trailer. This fact seems extremely disappointing since EFNY previously appeared as a special edition laserdisc. I never owned that package, but apparently it included an audio commentary from Carpenter and Russell plus a featurette and some other elements. Perhaps MGM couldnít license these extras - perhaps they didnít try. All I know is that theyíre missed; had they appeared, this would have been a much more desirable DVD.

As it stands, Escape From New York largely falls in the ďmediocreĒ category. The movie itself is a decent little action flick that consistently entertained me, though I didnít think it provided any particularly special thrills. The DVD offers a bland but watchable picture plus erratic though usually good sound and almost no supplements. Ultimately EFNY probably merits a rental, and big fans of the film may want to purchase it; the DVD is pretty unspectacular, but with a retail price of only $19.98, itís hard to complain too much.

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