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Featured Blu-ray Review: Escape from New York

August 6th, 2010

Escape from New York - Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack - Buy from Amazon

MGM is releasing a line of Blu-rays and DVD to coincide with the third edition release of The Rough Guide to Cult Movies. The number of films being released is impressive, including a number of Oscar winners like Fargo and The Usual Suspects, as well as personal favorites like UHF and Bubba Ho-Tep. Included in this list is the Blu-ray debut of both Escape from New York and Kalifornia, and the screener for the former just arrived on my desk. Awesome.

The Movie

I recently reviewed Escape from L.A. (which was released on Blu-ray in May) and gave a rather brief description of the plot as a way to critique the sequel. Repeating it here seems redundant, but for those who don't know...

In the not too distant future, 1988, crime has increased by 400%. In order to deal with the problem, the island of Manhattan was converted into the nations only maximum security prison, but without any guards. A wall was built around the nearby shore and the water and bridges were mined to prevent escape; once you went in, you never got out.

Nearly a decade later, in 1997, while the President was traveling to an important summit to prevent a nuclear war, his plane is hijacked by a terrorist group called the National Liberation Front of America and crashed into Manhattan island. The President survives, but his whereabouts are unknown. With a very limited amount of time, and even more limited options, they decide the only have one choice, send in Snake Plissken. Snake is a decorated war hero turned criminal who was recently captured and was in the middle of processing to be sent to Manhattan island when the incident occurred. So they give him some equipment, the means of tracking the President and 24 hours to fly in on a glider, find the President, and get him out. Failing that, he is instructed to get a tape out, which is needed to prevent Word War III. As a means of preventing Snake from simply flying to Canada, they inject him with a micro bomb that will kill him if he fails.

Once on the inside, he meets a number of characters, some he knew (like Brain) others that are new to him (Maggie and Cabbie) but all of which seem to know him. He learns The Duke of New York has the President and is planning on using him as a human shield in order to get off the island. But Snake plans to use him to get out first.

As I mentioned in my Escape from L.A. review, the two films are nearly identical; however, nearly everything that didn't quite work the second time around struck gold this time around. Snake Plissken is one of the coolest movie characters around. While the film is set to a pace that is fitting as someone with that much cool, you don't run around and blow things up every 15 seconds when you are this cool. You don't need to. The film has a great dystopian look to it and the social commentary is just as relevant today as it was back then. (At the time the film was made, there was an uptick in worry about crime, but the actual crime rates were dropping. The same thing is happening in Arizona where property crime is down, violent crime is down, and the crime rate near the border is actually lower than in the state as a whole. But you wouldn't know that from the political rhetoric being spouted.)

The film's look is even more impressive when you consider its budget, which was a paltry $6 million. Yes, it was made nearly 30 years ago, but even so $6 million was very small. Raiders of the Lost Ark cost $20 million, For Your Eyes Only cost $28 million, Superman II cost $50 million, and they were all made in 1981. In fact, I think the budget might have worked in its favor, as John Carpenter had to rely more on limited, lower budget physical effects. This gives the movie a more timeless quality.

There are a few things that don't work as well for the movie as a whole. For instance, the special effects shots of the glider look a little dodgy. Also, it's a very dark movie and detials are sometimes swallowed by the shadows. This is partially due to the budget, but also partially due to artistic choices. Finally, could someone explain to me what all those flashing lights in the police headquarters do? This film has to be one of the films on the minds of the creators of Airplane 2.

This has always been one of my favorite movies. This is not the first time I've owned it and it likely won't be the last.

... Yeah, that's not a good sign.

The Extras

There are no extras on the Blu-ray. None. Not even a trailer. The DVD Flipper disc that comes in this combo pack does have the trailer, but that's hardly a selling point.

The video transfer is much better than the previously released U.K. Blu-ray. This time around the studio decided more is less. Instead of trying to "correct" for the low-budget limitations of the previous film, they mostly left it alone. This does mean some of the darker scenes suffer from lack of detail, while the grain is a little heavy at times. But this is better than artificially cleaning it up and in the process screwing up the transfer. I've seen that happen before. The audio is even better than the video with good use of the surround sound speakers, especially early on.

Right now the price on is just $13.49, and that's a huge selling point. However, the special edition DVD was loaded with extras, so I think it is more than likely that this film will get a special edition Blu-ray release once the money problems at MGM are over. (Either by finding a buyer, or by going bankrupt and having its assets, including its catalog, sold off to pay the debtors.)

The Verdict

The North American Blu-ray debut of Escape from New York is a bit of a mixed bag. The film is excellent. This is the best the film has ever looked on the home market, and it is very inexpensive. On the other hand, there are no extras and there is a good chance a double-dip is showing up sooner rather than later. It's absolutely worth checking out on High Definition, while at that price.

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