Arts

Cult Movie: Big Apple rotten to the core in 1980s classic Escape From New York

Kurt Russell as Snake Pliskin in the John Carpenter-directed Escape From New York
Ralph McLean

BEFORE Mayor Rudolph Giuliani famously undertook his massive clean-up of Manhattan in the 1990s you could say the Big Apple was rotten to the core.

Sleazy, dangerous and a million miles away from the family-friendly tourist destination of today, downtown New York was run down, beaten up and riddled with crime. It was the perfect setting, in other words, for a future shock sci-fi parable about the breakdown of law and order and that's exactly what John Carpenter delivered with Escape From New York in 1981.

The main premise for Carpenter's much loved B-movie homage – New York has descended into utter chaos and is now used as a holding centre for some of the country's most violent criminals – is beautifully simple, and in 81 must have seemed like a genuine possibility, and it allows Carpenter to craft one of his finest fantasy films ever.

It's a wild and outlandish adventure, of course, but the cast is great and Carpenter pushes all the craziness along with just the right amount of fan-boy love and affection, making for a true cult classic in the process.

Set in 1997, it tells the tale of the US president (Donald Pleasance) who escapes a terrorist attack on Air Force One but crash lands into the barren wastes of modern Manhattan where he is swiftly taken hostage by the self-styled Duke Of New York (played with streetwise savvy by Stax soulman Isaac Hayes). The Duke is only willing to release the president if all the prisoners kept captive on the island are allowed access to the mainland. If the powers that be fail to comply the president will be assassinated.

Faced with this dilemma a police commissioner called Hauk (played by spaghetti western stalwart Lee Van Cleef) asks a former black ops expert turned common robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to stage a rescue mission. If he succeeds he will have his criminal record wiped clean. If he doesn't, an explosive charge that's been planted under his skin will detonate and it's goodnight Snake.

Admittedly the central core of the plot feels like it's been swiped wholesale from The Dirty Dozen but that's not to say there isn't a ton of fun to be had here.

Russell, who had previously worked with director Carpenter on the splendid Elvis TV movie in 1979, makes for a truly iconic anti-hero in Snake. With his eye patch, combat trousers and rock star hair, he's an unforgettable figure in a movie that practically bulges with them.

There are memorable roles for Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, a kind of crazed tour guide through the urban jungle of the city, Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie and the great Harry Dean Stanton even turns up as Duke's former right hand man Brain.

Neat as all those supporting figures are and as epic as Russell's central performance is, I still can't get past the bald-headee brilliance of Isaac Hayes. His turn as Duke, with his soul man swagger and cooler than thou demeanour, steals the show.

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