For about half the film, Carpenter's narrative economy and explosive visual style (incorporating some marvellous model work of the new Manhattan skyline) promise wonders. The trouble is that his characters neither develop nor interact dynamically, so the plot gradually winds down into predictable though highly enjoyable histrionics.
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The movie is never less than entertaining, but it fails to satisfy—it gives us too little of too much. Oddly, much of its pleasure is in the acting, which up to this point hadn't been Carpenter's strong suit: Donald Pleasence, Adrienne Barbeau, and Harry Dean Stanton offer excellent turns.
Boasting one of the most iconic characters ever in Plissken, and an effective sci-fi set-up, this is entertainment of the highest order.
Escape from New York isn't really science fiction -- it's an action flick set in a futuristic setting. Epic potential for a masterful, gripping tale is abandoned in favor of cheap thrills.
The pleasures are right in your face, beginning with the million-dollar idea of turning NYC into a walled-off prison where criminals run free. Even born-and-raised New Yorkers (of which Carpenter was decidedly not) could smile at that histrionic setup; it’s an outsider’s joke made funny by our willingness to be entertained.
Carpenter's grittily convincing New York-in-decay remains the film's best element. Never particularly suspenseful and hampered by a finale that almost literally steers the plot toward a dead end, Escape only intermittently finds Carpenter flexing his directorial muscles. But it may be his most visionary film: Escape allowed him to build a future out of scraps from the past.
It's a toughly told, very tall tale, one of the best escape (and escapist) movies of the season.