John Carpenter has been racing from one fantastic format to another: horror in "Halloween," fantasy in "The Fog," and now science fiction in Escape From New York. But only the setting is sci fi. The action is pure thriller, with the usual emphasis on cheap chills.
In the future, according to the plot, all of Manhattan will be turned into a huge prison. When the President's plane crash-lands there, he becomes a hostage , and a clever thug is recruited to rescue this unlucky chief executive.
The thug is played by Kurt Russell, who is busily breaking away from his old Walt Disney image -- just like Julie Andrews, who bids an inauspicious goodbye to "Mary Poppins" with a topless moment in "S.O.B." Both performers were better off in their G-rated days. As a malevolent antihero, Russell has precisely three expressions -- sullen, very sullen, and sullenm -- while his voice does a monotonous impersonation of Clint Eastwood. Donald Pleasence fares better (and keeps his English accent under wraps) as the President, and Lee van Cleef is convincing as the cop in charge of his rescue. Harry Dean Stanton does about half what he's capable of, as a crook called Brain, while Adrienne Barbeau makes frantic attempts to act tough.
Carpenter has a lot of filmmaking talent, but it shows mostly in the magical-whimsical backgrounds of the tale. For the rest, the special effects seem to be getting to him: He needs a nice long rest, preferably surrounded by good actors and storytellers, and other folks who know how to entertain without relying entirely on technology. "Escape From New York" is a mechan ical marvel -- so mechanical it never learns how to live.