Special Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Season Hubley, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau
Director: John Carpenter
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: December 16, 2003

"There was an accident. About an hour ago, a small jet went down inside New York City. The president was on board.”

“President of what?”

“That’s not funny, Plissken.”

Film ***1/2

Boy, if there was ever proof that an 80s classic could look and sound so good; Escape From New York is the proof. More on that later…

By 1980, John Carpenter had already established himself as the master of cinematic horror. In the wake of two consecutive horror hits, Halloween and The Fog, Carpenter took sort of brief turn into the realm of the action genre, which wasn’t entirely new to the director if you consider his much underrated 1976 cult classic, Assault on Precinct 13. His break from horror not only consisted of making an action movie, but a then startling account of an apocalyptic future.

Escape From New York is easily considered among Carpenter fans as one of the director’s all time best. Many feel it remains a classic because of subliminal satire of government and politics, not to mention the role of the President, who is portrayed in the story as a cowardly wimp. The future depicted in the movie is one I’m sure nobody would be crazy enough to consider. The island of New York City has become the lone maximum-security prison for the entire country. New York is purely inescapable, since the entire island is surrounded by a 50-foot containment wall, and the water routes are thoroughly mined.

Enter Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former soldier, and a highly decorated one, too. Snake has been incarcerated following a failed robbery, and faces life imprisonment, that is, unless he agrees to participate in the ultimate suicide mission. Summoned by police commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), Plissken is recruited for a rescue operation, one involving the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence), whose escape pod has landed somewhere in the Big Apple following an attempt on his life aboard Air Force One. In exchange for completing the operation, Snake will receive a full pardon for each crime he’s ever committed.

Snake’s assignment, and not a simple one, is to go in and locate the President so that he can make it to an important press conference. With only 17 hours at his disposal, in addition to a slow-dissolving poison that has been secretly injected into his arteries, Snake wastes no time in looking for the Commander in chief once he goes into the island, even though he comes across as the kind of guy who couldn’t care less if the world was going to end. Once he’s entered New York, he gets word that the President may be held captive by the notorious gang leader known as The Duke (Isaac Hayes).

One thing John Carpenter does so terrifically is immerse you into the darkest of atmospheres, and the setting in Escape From New York is one of the best examples of this technique. Not too long after landing in New York, he comes face to face with an assortment of bizarre characters. Among Snake’s encounters is that of a zombie-like gang known as The Crazies, who can’t really be seen because of the dark, but their maneuvering in the night suggests a creepy enemy. Snake soon finds some unexpected assistance in Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) who sort of work under The Duke, but are willing to join Snake’s side when he promises them a safe escape from the island.

As far as futuristic action movies go, Escape From New York remains one of the bests, and one that manages to hold much interest when watching it twenty three years after its initial release. Carpenter’s uncompromising vision, along with a monumental performance from Russell, in his first theatrical collaboration with Carpenter following the television movie, Elvis, help in making this the ultimate apocalyptic cult classic that it is.

Video ****

Anyone who watched this movie when it first hit DVD three years ago will quickly note that the video transfer left a lot to be desired. Despite being anamorphic, the image itself didn’t really do the look of the film justice. However, the memory of the previous release has been erased thanks to MGM’s ultimately superb offering in this new 2-disc re-issuing, which is perhaps the best one of the year. The anamorphic picture will absolutely stun anyone who thought this movie was incapable of looking so terrific in the DVD format. The entire movie takes place at night, therefore resulting in a challenging process to make the movie look right, and each scene has been mastered incredibly. MGM should be congratulated for a tremendous job well done!

Audio ***1/2

The same can be said for the audio department, as the newly mastered 5.1 soundtrack delivers an outstanding feeling of power to the movie. Everything, from Carpenter’s classic score for the film, to the set pieces, to the action sequences have been given a much first rate treatment. The only thing that keeps it from being a full four star quality is a brief instance or two of the sound being limited to the front rear. Other than that, this is one stunner of an audio transfer.

Features ****

MGM took no prisoners in the reissuing this DVD, and it’s without a doubt one of the best packages of the year.

Disc one includes two commentary tracks; one with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, who are possibly one of the best commentary pairings of all time; and a second one with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves.

Disc two contains a deleted opening sequence with optional commentary, a featurette titled “Return to Escape From New York”, an exclusive comic book titled “The Snake Plissken Chronicles” as well as a making of gallery of the comic. Also included are linear notes by John Carpenter, photo gallery, and trailers.

Lastly, the packaging of this release is among the best packaged of any disc this year, for my money.


Escape From New York remains a kick butt ride after a near twenty three year existence, and MGM re-issuing is one of the best DVD makeovers of recent memory. Once again, this trip to the Big Apple is one worth taking.