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Escape from New York Blu-ray + DVD Review

Escape from New York movie poster Escape from New York

Theatrical Release: July 10, 1981 / Running Time: 99 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: John Carpenter / Writers: John Carpenter, Nick Castle

Cast: Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken), Lee Van Cleef (Commissioner Bob Hauk), Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie), Donald Pleasence (President), Isaac Hayes (The Duke), Season Hubley (Girl in Chock Full O'Nuts), Harry Dean Stanton (Harold "Brain" Hellman), Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie), Tom Atkins (Rehme), Charles Cyphers (Secretary of State), Frank Doubleday (Romero), John Strobel (Cronenberg)

Buy Escape from New York from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD Combo (also in DVD packaging) / 1-Disc Standard DVD / 2-Disc Special Edition DVD

By Kelvin Cedeno

Is it possible to enjoy a film that helped define a genre without comparing it to the dozens of movies that followed it? John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981) is one of the earliest examples of a post-apocalyptic film. Though tackling its subject matter with some levity, it offers what has become a checklist for this sort of picture: a no-nonsense loner as lead, a villain who rules the entire dystopia, gas becoming more valuable than ever, and modern technology becoming relatively non-existent. Perhaps that's the problem of being a trendsetter; at some point, the original impact is weakened by all the imitators.

Set in the then-future 1997, it's hard to see this world as the one that would make Titanic the highest grossing film of all-time. World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union is coming to an end, with the U.S. having suffered a great deal from it.
Crime rates have skyrocketed, forcing the entire island of Manhattan to be transformed into one large guard-free maximum security prison. When Air Force One is hijacked and crash-lands there, America's President (Donald Pleasence) is taken hostage by inmates working for the self-appointed Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).

Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) recruits fabled new inmate Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to single-handedly carry out a rescue mission. Snake, a former army lieutenant who turned to a life of crime, has disdain for everyone and everything. He's reluctant to rescue the President, even with his freedom offered as a reward. To help persuade him, Hauk injects time-sensitive explosives into Snake that will rupture should the mission prove unsuccessful in the next 24 hours. With the help of old colleague "Brain" (Harry Dean Stanton) and his feisty Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), Snake must track down and save the President while saving himself in the process.

With an eyepatch, a black tank top, and plenty of attitude, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) becomes one of cinema's most iconic badass antiheroes.

Known for being a gritty action film, it's surprising to see how much Escape from New York deviates from this label. Violence seems pretty tame even by 1981 standards, and there are actually only a handful of action sequences. In fact, Snake doesn't even get into his first scuffle until after the 30-minute mark. That may turn off some viewers, but it's really refreshing how the movie allows the audience to take in the atmosphere and details of this world. Unfortunately, the time leisurely spent in this dystopia isn't used for character development. In fact, by the end of the film, not one single character has changed for better or worse, and we never really feel like we've gotten to know anyone.

So what saves the film from becoming too flat? Kurt Russell. His is the only character the audience feels like they spend sufficient time with, and while he's essentially a one-note anti-establishmentarian, Russell makes the most of it. At this point in his career, the idea of him playing a tough-as-nails character must've seemed bizarre. After all, he was mostly known for his work in Disney's live-action comedies, including his three turns as nerdy genius Dexter Riley.
From Escape's first scene, however, Russell displays a presence and gravitas that manages to easily shake off the baggage of his prior roles. While deadly serious, Russell plays Snake with an ever-so-slight wink to keep his antihero from being dull. With a lesser lead actor, the film would've collapsed on itself, but Russell injects life and attitude into every scene he's in.

The story itself is pretty light. Without many layers to delve into, a good amount of the running time is devoted to Snake carefully lurking around the desolate city streets. While this works atmospherically, it feels a bit ordinary in terms of dramatics. Moments, especially during the third act, that should be riveting or powerful are presented somewhat plainly, even awkwardly. So while the audience has a good time tagging along with Snake on his mission, there's little to really invest in and a lot of it feels perfunctory.

Remaining in question throughout the film is the loyalty of "Brain" (Harry Dean Stanton, center) and his chesty girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) to A-Number-1 prisoner The Duke (Isaac Hayes). Best known for his villainous roles in spaghetti westerns, Lee Van Cleef plays Hauk, the US Police Force Commissioner who enlists Snake and checks in with him (in this case using a telephone that seems oversized for 1997).

There have been dozens of post-apocalyptic films since the release of Escape from New York, including its coolly-received 1996 sequel Escape from L.A.. While that somewhat deadens the impact the film no doubt carried upon release, looking at New York on its own terms still reveals something little more than serviceable and competent. Kurt Russell is the big reason why the picture works at all, though the mood and environments are set up well. As such, it's something that should entertain most viewers but won't really pull them in or stick with them after the credits have rolled.

Three months after its sequel made its Blu-ray debut from Paramount, Escape from New York came to high-definition from MGM in one of the studio's increasingly standard Blu-ray + DVD Combos.

Buy Escape from New York Blu-ray + DVD Combo from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

BD: 2.35:1 Widescreen; DVD: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
BD: DTS-HD 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French), Dolby Surround (English)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Mono 2.0 (French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish; DVD-only: French
DVD Closed Captioned
Release Date: August 3, 2010
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Two discs (BD-50 & DVD-5); Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available in DVD packaging
Previously released and still available as 1-Disc Standard DVD ($14.98 SRP)
and 2-Disc Special Edition DVD ($29.98 SRP)


Blu-ray preserves Escape from New York's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The results are very good, but not quite excellent. Much of the image is appropriately dark given the film's setting.
Preview and download the Escape from New York soundtrack:
Black levels are strong, and unlike many modern features of this sort, contrast and color saturation haven't been drastically changed. That means that colors are more vivid than expected given the limitations of the lighting source. Print flaws and digital defects are completely absent, though the image does look a bit soft for the most part. Still, it's an accurate and pleasing transfer that hasn't been tampered with.

Similar thoughts can be expressed towards the DTS-HD 5.1 track. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, though sound effects do sound a bit hollow at times. In contrast, Carpenter's score is quite sharp and ends up being the loudest and broadest component of the track. Most of the sounds are relegated towards the front speakers, though a few notable portions (such as a ring fight's cheering crowd) do open up the field. Like the picture, it's not something that's been heavily reworked and should please listeners.

I'm not sure that referring to The Duke's chandelier-adorned Cadillac as a "control situation" is grammatically or fundamentally correct, but as the only bonus feature on this set, let's cut the theatrical trailer some slack. The DVD included in the Escape from New York Blu-ray + DVD combo is totally the movie's original double-sided disc, as this 2000-ish main menu confirms.


While Escape from New York was treated to a nice Special Edition DVD back in 2003, absolutely none of those supplements appear on the Blu-ray. That 2-Disc DVD release included two audio commentaries, a 23-minute featurette, a deleted prologue, a 74-still photo gallery, three trailers, and a radio spot. None of that shows up here, and it's anyone's guess as to why.
Of all the major studios, Fox (who now handles the MGM library) seems to be the weakest when it comes to catalog Blu-rays. This is far from the first time they've released a barebones BD when a packed DVD is still readily available. Perhaps this disc was rushed to join its sequel on the format, but that doesn't excuse failing to port over supplements, a feat that shouldn't at all be difficult.

And don't count on getting some of the bonuses on the combo's included DVD. It's not Disc 1 of the Special Edition that is included, but Escape's first DVD release, a double-sided disc issued in 2000. It offers both a 16:9-enhanced widescreen presentation and a heavily-cropped 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer. While the former is quite satisfactory by turn-of-the-century DVD standards, it reportedly and understandably falls below the quality of the film's re-release. On the plus side, this flipper DVD does contain the combo's one and only bonus feature: Escape from New York's original theatrical trailer (2:15). It looks rough, is not enhanced for 16:9 displays, and may not alone be worth inserting the disc for, but it's something.

The apparent lack of effort extends to the Blu-ray's static menus. No music or sound accompanies the poster artwork used here. The pop-up menu is a simple black and silver designed in the same bottom-to-top fashion as other Fox BDs. There aren't even any previews for other releases here. The DVD's menus are also silent and static, as evidently unchanged as everything else from the 2000 disc, despite the 2003 dates of its files.

The Blu-ray and DVD discs are housed in a cheap eco-friendly blue keep case. No inserts, slipcovers, or interior artwork is included.

The eccentric Cabby (Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine), Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Snake (Kurt Russell) leave the New York Public Library that is now The Duke's domain. Handcuffed and ridiculed, the President of the United States of America (Donald Pleasance) shoots an unfriendly look at his weirdest captor, Romero (Frank Doubleday).


While it no doubt influenced many filmmakers who would tackle similar subject matter, Escape from New York doesn't hold up terribly well to close scrutiny. Kurt Russell's iconic performance elevates the material, and there are a few interesting elements and sequences that keep things enjoyable. It just isn't particularly well-crafted or engrossing compared to some of its successors.

The Blu-ray is a rather half-hearted effort. Picture and sound aren't the best the '80s has seen on the format, but they're still quite good. The lack of any bonus features whatsoever is what really hampers things. Those who own the 2003 Special Edition should upgrade to the Blu-ray for the improved picture and sound. That set, however, should be held onto for its bonus material, taking the place of the more useless bonus DVD included here. Newcomers to the film who enjoy the post-apocalyptic genre are encouraged to rent this.

Buy from Amazon.com (or in DVD packaging) / Buy on DVD: 2-Disc Special Edition / 1-Disc DVD

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
Starring Kurt Russell: Tombstone (Blu-ray) Miracle The Strongest Man in the World The Fox and the Hound The Barefoot Executive
1980s Movies: The Shining Raiders of the Lost Ark Tron Red Dawn (Special Edition) Caddyshack
Ernest Borgnine: The Black Hole Strange Wilderness | Harry Dean Stanton: One Magic Christmas The Wendell Baker Story
Donald Pleasence: Escape from Witch Mountain | Adrienne Barbeau: Back to School (Extra-Curricular Edition)
Surrogates Con Air District 9 Cloverfield Vantage Point The Crazies
Post-Apocalyptic Cinema: The Road 28 Weeks Later Zombieland Blindness Planet of the Apes (Blu-ray) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
New: The Joneses After.Life Kick-Ass Skellig: The Owl Man The Last Song Hot Tub Time Machine

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Reviewed August 17, 2010.

Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1981 Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Avco Embassy Pictures, International Film Investors, Goldcrest Films International,
and 2000/2010 MGM Home Entertainment and Fox Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.