John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) came out of nowhere to bring one of the most iconic movie heroes in history to the big screen.
Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell) is a gruff, grungy, monosyllabic John Wayne type who is forced to go into the Island of Manhattan, turned into a maximum security prison, in 1997 to retrieve the President, whose personal plane (Air Force One) crashes into the middle of the city. The President (Donald Pleasance of Carpenter’s Halloween and Prince of Darkness), captured and held prisoner by a large prison gang, was on his way to a peace conference.
Snake, the ultimate anti-hero, is completely distrustworthy of authority and, despite this, has every reason to believe it when he is injected with something which will kill him within a short time period if he doesn’t succeed in retrieving the President from the gang (led by The Duke, played-? by Isaac Hayes). Flanked by a wild Klaus Kinski type, a clever mind behind the throne type called Brain (Harry Dean Stanton, always welcome) and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau of The Fog and TV’s Carnivale, underrated; at the time, Carpenter’s partner in love and life), a Hawksian woman if ever there was – and perhaps a hooker with a heart of gold, the Duke rules over the prison island with an iron grip and a campy sense of style.
Carpenter too displays a campy sense of style, managing to mix everything from sci-fi/action in a dystopian future to his favorite motif (the siege film) to modern Westerns (the gangs holding the President are identified as “Indians,” afterall), to even a Musical number, as when a local cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) first meets Snake in a rundown theater.
If there’s a grander point Carpenter’s trying to make (which there almost assuredly is) – at least beyond generic distrust of government types – it may be that the breakdown of social order (literally, the inmates running the asylum with scarcely any supervision and no real rules within the walls of their prison) is a failing of government and that even in a dystopian future, it’s not something we’ve gotten better at. This kind of breakdown of social order can be seen in everything from Halloween (what were those inmates literally doing roaming OUTSIDE the mental hospital at night in the rain?!?), to In the Mouth of Madness.