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Escape from New York: Special Edition

There was a time when the movies' love-hate relationship with New York City was all hate, in the '70s and early '80s with the release of such great films as The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three and The Warriors. John Carpenter's bitterly funny Escape from New York is a continuation of that short-lived genre and coincident with The Road Warrior. Both titles came out in 1981 and featured loner heroes in an apocalyptic future utterly trashed by the scum of the earth; both films also influenced an entire sub-genre of Italian knock-offs. Escape is set in 1997 and concerns a search for the U.S. president (Donald Pleasance), who has crash-landed in Air Force One on Manhattan, which has been converted into a prison island. The head of security (Lee Van Cleef) can't find the politician, who was on his way to an important summit with representatives of the countries the U.S. happens to be at war with. In desperation, he sends in Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a disillusioned war-hero turned criminal (and one whom everyone thinks is dead, a running gag in the film). Plissken accumulates a ragamuffin group of impedimenta in the form of a former associate (Harry Dean Stanton), his squeeze (Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter's then-wife), a taxi driver (Ernest Borgnine), and others. Naturally, no one is straightforward with the assumed-dead Snake, but that doesn't matter — Plissken (whom Russell patterned after Clint Eastwood) finds it very easy to get out of any number of scrapes (except sequels — he appeared in Carpenter's Escape from L.A. 15 years later). Released by Avco-Embassy, Escape from New York cost an amazingly-cheap $6 million and earned $25 million in North America. It's funny to see Manhattan as a war-torn zone of corruption with its Darwinian hierarchies ruled by violence and a petty despot named "The Duke" (Isaac Hayes). And it's a near-great film; Carpenter was to go on and do better, more polished, and more clever movies (The Thing, They Live), but this early effort is a lot of fun.

*          *          *

Released previously as a bare-bones single disc with a Dolby 2.0 Surround track, MGM has done pretty much everything a fan of EFNY could want. And that want is based around a Laserdisc that was released in 1994, which had an audio commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell where they drank and talked their way through the film, one of the loosest and most entertaining commentary tracks yet. Also on the laser was an interview with Carpenter wherein he talked about the missing first reel, which had Plissken robbing a bank only to be caught. This deleted footage was excerpted, and only whetted appetites. MGM's two-disc DVD set presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), dropping the pan-and-scan option on the original bare-bones DVD, with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. On the first disc are two audio commentary tracks, the first by producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves, the second the famed Carpenter/Russell track. On Disc Two, things are a bit skimpier. There's the documentary "Return to Escape From New York" (23 min.), which interviews Russell, Carpenter, Hill, Alves, D.P. Dean Cundey, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, and Isaac Hayes, though much of the best material is covered in the commentaries. This is followed by a gallery on the making of the comic book (a new endeavor, a sample issue is included with the set), and a "Snake Bites trailer montage" that boils the film down to three minutes of soundbites and memorable images. Next up is the deleted robbery sequence (11 min.) with optional commentary by Russell and Carpenter; it's nice to see, but one of the clearest cases of something that got cut for a reason (as a ticking-clock film, the Air Force One crash is more important to establish than the lead character). Trailers, teasers, bonus trailers, and still galleries follow, along with an Easter egg. Dual-DVD digipak with paperboard slipcase.
—D.K. Holm/DSH

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