Escape from New York
"I don't give a fuck about your war. Or your president."
John Carpenter's Escape from New York was practically an instant classic in 1981, and its status has only grown in the years since. The line above, uttered by Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken with an apathetic defiance, perfectly sums up the film and its protagonist. It's also the kind of ultimate punk-rock declaration that fans love, and clearly it still works today like it did when Russell spoke it in 1981.
Russell has made a career out of memorably iconic performances, including in other films by Carpenter (The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China), but his Snake Plissken is right near the top of that list. He's the ultimate bad-ass here, the science fiction antihero against whom all others must be compared. Russell is the rare leading man who not only exudes strength but also intelligence. He makes Plissken into a three-dimensional character even though we really don't know much about him.
Carpenter is one of our finest living directors, yet sadly only genre film fans and critics seem to realize this. In a long and storied career, his best stretch may have come during the period during which Escape from New York was made.
These were his feature films from 1976 through 1983: Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine. That's a murderer's row, one of the best stretches by any director, from any era. Carpenter toggled between thrillers and science fiction and horror with relative ease. For at least four of the films on that list, you could make a valid argument that each is the very best of its kind. Ever.
Many of Carpenter's films, including Escape from New York, have become so ingrained in the vocabulary of cinema that their influence is everywhere you look. The film's simple plot—ex-soldier Plissken must rescue the President of the United States from a gang of criminals on the island penitentiary of Manhattan in order to save his own life—masks the deeper themes and conflicts at play. Plissken, an anti-establishment maverick , must now work for the man in order to save the man. The movie's depiction of rampant crime rates leading to the country's largest city being turned into a supermax prison is the logical extension of a nation's irrational fear of marginalized citizens.
Plissken picks up help along the way from a reluctant adviser to the Duke of New York called Brain (the always excellent Harry Dean Stanton), Brain's tough-as-nails girlfriend Maggie (one of genre films' smartest and most iconic sex symbols, Adrienne Barbeau), and the exuberantly jovial Cabbie (the legendary Ernest Borgnine). It's safe to say they won't all make it out alive. Their fates are each affecting in their own ways, because Stanton, Barbeau, and Borgnine breathe such life into their characters. Together with Russell, Dr. Loomis himself Donald Pleasence as the President, and soul legend Isaac Hayes as the Duke, they form an all-star cast.
There's a moment towards the end where Plissken asks the President what he thinks about all of the people who died to save him. The president can only offer a perfunctory thanks to Plissken's companions who gave their lives for their country. Plissken flicks his cigarette in disgust at this, then walks away. That moment captures the essence of the film: he's risking his life for a man and a country that don't give a single damn about him or others living on the periphery. They're only valuable as assets, not as people. Plissken understands this, explicitly. It's why the film's central conceit is one of such conflict for him. He knows that his country has long since stopped pretending to care about him and others like him. The distance between the 1% and the 99% has only widened. Plissken is one of film's great antiheroes because he not only manifests our own disgust with the rigged system, but also represents our unbreakable resilience in the face of such corruption.
Escape from New York will remain relevant for as long as governments and politicians are pushing policies to protect themselves at the expense of their constituents. Besides that, it's an expertly filmed, taut, and suspenseful sci-fi thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Throw in the fact that it stars Russell, Barbeau, Pleasence, and Stanton, and you've got one of Carpenter's best films, which is saying something when you consider how many other classics he's directed.