John Carpenter's directing style, epitomized by ceremoniously slow pans across spacious but murkey settings, is much too ponderous and enervating to realize the thrill-crazy, cliff-hnaging potential in a premise like "Escape From New York." Manipulated by directors with a dynamic sense of imagery and rhythm, like Sam Peckinpah in his prime or Walter Hill on "The Warriors" or Steven Spielberg on "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the same farfetched, pseudo-tough adventure plot might have given action audiences yet another amusing workout.Given the contemplative Carpenter approach, "Escape" remains a dynamite idea for a thriller that goes begging for an explosive temperament.
The movie begins with portentous musical chords and a stilted narration, in which an actress' Voice of Doom describes the cynical, futuristic premise. A drastic rise in crime in the late 1980s compelled the government to hasten the decay of rotting old Manhattan by transforming it into a federal penal colony, the maximum-security dumping around for all the hard cases. A 50-foot wall rings the island, and every means of excape has been sealed off.
The prison is monitored by helicopter crews and sophisticated surveillance devices based at the Liberty Island headquarters of Warden Lee Van Cleef. dThe production designer, Joe Alves, who worked on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," has contributed some deft panoramic miniatures of the familiar skyline, beginning with a witty vista across the Hudson from the vantage point of guards patrolling the Great Wall on the Jersey side. The criminal culture inside the wall remains a threatening mystery, but prisoners about to be transferred from Liberty Island are given the following abandon-all-hope message by a public address announcer: "You now have the option to be terminated and cremated on the premises."
Radar operators discover an unidentified plane nearing Mahattan on an erratic course. The aircraft turns out to be Air Force One, hijacked by a kamikaze revolutionary who is locked in the cockpit, determined to crash-land with the president and his staff as a publicity stunt for her organization, the National Liberation Front of America. The president, very improbably embodied by Donald Pleasence, handcuffs a briefcase to his wrist and repairs to a secret ejection pod in the back of the plane.
Unfortunately, he ejects over the island and ends up in the hands of local barbarians, who dissuade Van Cleef from an immediate sweep by handing him a severed finger, presumably hacked off the president himself. Instead, Van Cleef places his hopes on a one-man infiltration mission. The infiltrator is Kurt Russell as a surly mercenary called Snake Plissken, a former Green Beret hero condemned to Manhattan after an unsuccessful attempt to rob a Federal Reserve bank.
The warden offers Snake a pardon in return for bringing the president back alive. We're led to believe that the president must be rescued within 24 hours to avert a global disaster and that Snake will perish of an exotic chemical injection if he's not back in time to receive the antidote.
It becomes increasingly apparent that Carpenter is the wrong director to capitalize on the most exciting swashbuckling possibilities. There are clever illustrative details, like the outrageous costumes of the criminal riffraff, the sight of shadowy figures scampering like rats along lividly slimy buildings and trash-strewn avenues, an experimental oil well pumping inside a reading room of the New York Library. Nevertheless, the tight spots and action payoffs always seem curiously slack. Carpenter's sluggishness at the staging and editing of action scenes may account for the peculiar viciousness of isolated details, like that severed finger and the generally sadistic treatment of the character of the president. Already the most overrated American director of his generation, Carpenter now shows signs of being a pulp cynic, too. Litimately, "Escape From New York" might have been created to confirm the world-view of that kamikaze in the cockpit.