“You’ve nothing to say, they’re breaking away, if you listen to fools…The Mob Rules.”-Black Sabbath
Slowly before our eyes, Baltimore is becoming a war zone. The gangs are running and terrorizing the streets in their organized “Purge.” Angry protests escalated quickly into looting, arson, and riots. Arrests at this time are not imminent, and the National Guard has been activated to assist with initiation of the city’s curfew during this state of emergency. Innocent citizens will be thrown into the middle of this urban chaos. Glass, bones, and lives will be shattered through Baltimore’s blight. The footage of the damage to this historical, but always rough city, reminds me of the landscape in Escape from New York (1981).
(Narrate in your head with a Jamie Lee Curtis computer voice) In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out.
It is now 1997; the isle of Manhattan has been a lawless land which the inmates run the asylum. Meanwhile, outside the Big CRAPple, World War III has kicked off and treaties of peace are on the table for negotiation. U.S. President, Donald Pleasance of The Great Escape (1963), travels to a three-way peace summit between the US, China, and Soviet Union. Enroute, Air Force One is hijacked by the National Liberation Front, manning the plane’s controls threatening to crash the plane if their demands are not met. The President is prepared for such an occurrence, uses his security bracelet and escape pod. Unfortunately, The Prez lands in the prison wasteland of Manhattan.
A quick reaction force is deployed to track and safe keep the President, but are met with demands by the right-hand man of the, prison crime lord, The Duke, Isaac Hayes of I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). The Duke is the king of the streets as he rules his roost with an iron fist and cruisin’ around in a Cadillac adorned with chandeliers. The President has been taken hostage (the Iran hostage crisis was still fresh in the minds of Americans), by The Duke’s entourage and warns the State has 24 hours to meet their demand of allowing all inmates access to the mainland of New York from their island prison. If Law Enforcement and the State do not comply, the President will be executed.
Desperate for a solution, NYPD Commissioner Hauk, Lee Van Cleef of For a Few Dollars More (1965), offers a deal to an ex-soldier turned convict “Snake” Plissken, Kurt Russell of Death Proof (2007). If “Snake” rescues the President and retrieves a vital cassette tape within 24 hours, “Snake” will give receive a full pardon. The catch, “Snake” is injected with a “booster” to fend off disease in Manhattan (42nd Street was still vibrant at this time), but is actually an injection of explosives that will rupture his central nervous system within 22 hours as a failsafe in case he abandons the mission. Without wasting any more time, “Snake” glides into Manhattan landing on the old World Trade Center. “Snake” has to beat the clock, the chip on his shoulder, and any prison thug who gets in his way to save the President.
Escape from New York is an action sci-fi flick directed/scored by John Carpenter of They Live (1988), with a screenplay by Carpenter and Nick Castle of Hook (1991). Escape was inspired out of the frustration that Carpenter and the majority of citizens felt deceived by the presidency after the post-Vietnam/Watergate Scandal in the early 1970s and from science fiction novel, Planet of the Damned (1962), by Harry Harrison. Coming off the success of cinematic blockbusters with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), and The Fog (1980), Escape from New York, helped solidify Carpenter’s status as an astute writer and director for the next two decades. A young set painter/special effects designer by the name of James Cameron, The Terminator (1984), worked on Escape before being catapulted into superstardom.
Escape was filmed in California, New York City and a majority shot in St. Louis, Missouri (not far from the location of the Ferguson riots) and grossed 4x times its budget of six million upon its initial release. The mounding rubble, dystopian décor meets urban war zone chic, emphasizes the horrific realities of social collapse, death of values in man and state, that is surrounds our antihero, “Snake.”
Russell’s performance in my opinion is one of the best of his career and was instrumental in forming a budding relationship with Carpenter as the two teamed up again for The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Chuck Norris of Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Tommy Lee Jones of The Fugitive (1993), Nick Nolte of Gangster Squad (2013), Jeff Bridges of The Big Lebowski (1998), Clint Eastwood of Pale Rider (1985), Kris Kristofferson of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), and Charles Bronson of Death Wish (1974), were all considered for the role of “Snake,” before Russell signed on. Escape also showcases the diverse talents of Ernest Borgnine of The Wild Bunch (1969), Harry Dean Stanton of Christine (1983), Adrienne Barbeau of Swamp Thing (1982), and Tom Atkins of Two Evil Eyes (1990). Escape even has Rodger Bumpass as a dancer–he’s the voice of Squidward Tentacles from SpongeBob SquarePants (1999)!
Carpenter was lauded for Escape and his directorial vision to adequately capture the balancing act of action packed sci-fi, futuristic, western with enough humorous oddities for it to stand out from the rest of the pack competing for the box office during the summer of 1981. The 1980s had many cinematic fun features, and Escape is one of those cult classics in that it has been referenced, parodied and honored countless times since its release. A sequel Escape from L.A. (1996) pleased the rabid fan base though it didn’t come close to oozing with authentic coolness or venomous social satire of the original. TSR, Inc. even produced an Escape from New York board game (what a great gift…hint, hint.). Word from Hollyweird is a remake is in the works, so we have something else to boycott from the machine after they tarnish yet another franchise. Overall, Escape from New York is a blast and shouldn’t be missed by any Carpenter fan, action junkies, or those who are enthusiasts of witty metaphors marinated with social commentary.
So, as it looks like we are in the threshold of downfall of one of America’s most historical cities, this mood of destruction and despair must be stopped. In reality, it will take the community to take our streets back from gangs. Citizens, protest. Criminals, destroy. You need to be tough on these gangs and use the insight that Ted Nugent shared, “Only criminals and bloodsuckers reward bad behavior.”
- Rick Baldwin is a writer, filmmaker, film/music historian, and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/rick.baldwin.568
- Twitter Rick Baldwin@rickbaldwin79 and firstname.lastname@example.org