In the far-flung future of 1997, the crime rate in America has gotten so bad that the entire island of Manhattan has been walled off and made into a penal colony. A zero-tolerance policy insures that any malefactor dropped into the island never comes back out. There's one problem with such a draconian policy, though: when a terrorist manages to seize control of Air Force One and crash the plane in the prison, the convict population takes the President (Donald Pleasence) hostage... and he must make a presentation within 24 hours to avert nuclear war. As ever, it's up to a Bad Dude to save the prez... war hero turned bank robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), who will rescue the chief exec in exchange for a pardon. And not getting his head blown off by the micro-explosives implanted in his neck.
Escape is vintage John Carpenter, made back in the days when it seemed the director could do no wrong. The incredible cast nudges the movie from mere workmanship into the realm of greatness - besides the aforementioned Pleasence and Russell, there's a semi-retired Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau and Isaac Hayes as The Duke of New York (he's A-number one), who rides around his prison domain in a limousine festooned with crystal chandeliers.
A skillful blend of western, prison movie, post-apocalyptic thriller and knowing winks to the audience, Escape ranks in my books as an almost-perfect movie. It never pretends to be anything more or less than grand entertainment, and it is so well done on every front, it succeeds at that magnificently.
An appropriately dark and brooding embossed slipcase holds a four-panel gatefold carrying the two discs and some other goodies. Heavy on the oranges and sepia, the design seems a good match for the feature.
Speaking of the feature, I don't think it looked this good on the day it was released. This is a beautiful transfer, subtly emphasizing a color palette which seems deceptively simple until you can actually look at it under these startlingly clear circumstances. Escape used a new film stock that allowed them to use open flames as light sources, which works fine in enclosed spaces, but on the streets of a blacked-out New York, that's not possible; the matching of these light and color elements is impressive. So is the new 5.1 remastered soundtrack, which will give all your speakers a nice workout.
It was often wondered what was taking this Special Edition so long to hit the shelves (a barebones disc had been a fixture for quite some time); a special edition laserdisc from the heyday of that format already had the first of several Carpenter/Russell audio commentaries, why not simply port that over into the DVD realm? There were some concerns that the movie might be jiggered with - after all, the doomed twin towers of the World Trade Center play an important part in the story - but here (besides an improved digital transfer and soundtrack) are the reasons for the delay:
(And having brought up the subject, I should mention that in this alternate reality, the World Trade Center still proudly stands.)
Besides that original commentary track - one of their best - is a second track by producer Debra Hill and Production Designer Joe Alves. I had always known that Escape was made on the cheap, but I had never known just how cheap. Hill and Alves' revelations about dressing sets and locations were quite informative, though Hill's insistence on pointing out every miniature got a bit wearing. Still, I'm sucker for tracks that point out that that a character jumps a wall in Los Angeles and lands in Missouri, so any such minor transgressions are easily forgiven.
The second disc contains the remainder of the Special Features, starting with a making-of featurette, Return to Escape from New York, which features interviews with various surviving cast and crew members combined with behind-the-scenes photos - an interesting alternative to listening to the dual audio tracks. Also under the "Featurette" index heading is a slide show on "The Making of John Carpenter's Snake Plissken Chronicles Comic" (say that three times fast). which at least gives a look as to how comic books are produced in this Net-savvy age; and "Snake Bites Trailer Montage", an odd assortment of Plissken footage matched to a new soundtrack. Betcha don't watch it more than once.
Deleted Scenes is a misnomer, as it contains only a single scene, but what a scene! This is the legendary first reel of Escape, cut by Carpenter before the movie's release, and shows exactly how Snake came to be in the hands of the authorities, bound for the Manhattan Penal Colony. Unfortunately, it's not as exciting as it sounds; it actually serves to weaken Plissken's character somewhat. The image is slightly soft (especially compared with the high-def feature on Disc One), but in terrific shape, with a new soundtrack by Carpenter. It is possible to watch this ten-minute scene with commentary by Carpenter and Russell, an especial hoot since Russell had never seen the completed sequence.
Trailers nets you three previews for Escape - two teasers and one theatrical - and amazingly, they're all different; usually trailers for a film differ only slightly from each other. You also get trailers for the Jeremiah Season One box set, the new Terminator disc and The Fog Special Edition... and, oh boy, oh boy, box art for eight other MGM action discs.
Speaking of different ad materials for the movie, Disc Two has an Easter Egg: set your cursor on "Deleted Scenes" and press right on your remote; an outline of the Manhattan skyline will highlight. Press enter, and you'll hear a radio spot for the movie, which makes it sound like Isaac Hayes is the star!
Photo Gallery is split up into three sections, each with around 20-30 pictures: Behind the Scenes, Production and Lobby Cards. You'll see a lot of these pictures in the Return featurette.
One of the end pockets of the gatefold holds a half-size reproduction of the first issue of John Carpenter's Snake Plissken Chronicles, with a very nice onionskin centerfold of two pieces of artwork. Though the comic doesn't do anything to particularly impress me, it certainly isn't bad, and might warrant a further look. There's also a blow-in card for Namco's upcoming John Carpenter's Snake Plissken's Escape game.
That's a lot, yet somehow the set makes me feel somewhat hollow. Disc Two seems a bit underpopulated, but the inclusion of so many soundtracks on Disc One probably necessitated the two-disc set. Perhaps I'm just spoiled after a packed special edition like the one for Big Trouble in Little China.
Or maybe fanboys just like to complain. This is a gorgeous version of this movie, and I should really just shut up and enjoy it.
Dr. Freex, 2/11/2004