John Carpenter's film is a masterpiece of dark humor, suspense, and great characters. The film channels the anger and distrust of the post-Vietnam/Watergate era, as well as the then-current Iranian Hostage crisis. Plissken represents, in a fashion, the Vietnam vets who did their job, even if they didn't agree with or understand their war, but came back to nothing. The film's novelization explores these themes better than the movie, but it is hinted at in Hauk's briefing. It also depicts a fascist police state, one that some would say is not too far from reality.
Kurt Russell is excellent in what was a breakout performance for him. Up to this point, Russell had been stuck in low budget comedies, following the end of his Disney days. This performance, coupled with another collaboration with Carpenter, Elvis, led to bigger and better roles. Russell channels Clint Eastwood to give Snake a menacing, if laconic quality. Much like a real serpent, Snake watches and strikes when he is ready; with speed and impact. Russell is able to say a lot with little dialogue, through his body language and facial expressions.
The supporting cast is wonderful. Adrienne Barbeau is the beautiful, but deadly Maggie. She is partnered with the intelligent, but slimy Brain. Their's is a symbiotic relationship; each provides something the other needs. Harry Dean Stanton, a great character actor, presents a Brain that is smart, but ruthless, and more than a bit cowardly. Isaac Hayes is The Duke, ruler of the prison. Hayes is a bit uneven, as he wasn't an experienced actor (he had at least one movie before this) but he is a charismatic performer and ultra-cool. Donald Pleasance is the consummate politician, a big man in his controlled environment, but lost in a world outside his; one he had a hand in creating. Ernest Borgnine is tremendous as Cabby, the answer man and link between Snake and the rest of the cast, as well as to the past of New York. Finally, Lee Van Cleef brings some of that Angel Eyes magic as Hauk, the prison Warden. Hauk is an ex-soldier and identifies with Snake. The difference is, Snake rebelled against the system that betrayed him; Hauk joined it. This was Van Cleef's last good role, before he was saddled with mediocrity in his tv series, the Master, and became the butt of jokes on MST3K.
The film moves at a brisk pace and the dark lighting carries the sense of mystery, isolation, and destruction. Carpenter is able to convincingly hide the fact that he shot this film in St. Louis and LA, and make you believe it is New York. Although there are gaps in logic and missing information, the pace doesn't let you dwell on it. There is a constant feeling of the race against time. If there is any complaint, it's that the budget sometimes holds back some of the action, but characterization makes up for it. Also, the dark lighting is sometimes too dark, and details are obscured.
The new special edition dvd brings a treat to long-time fans: the deleted opening bank robbery and capture of Snake Plissken. Since I had read the novelization before seeing the film, I had long wondered what this sequence had looked like. Although it does explain why Plissken is on his way to the prison when Hauk intercepts him, it doesn't really work in context with the rest of the film. The sequence worked well in the book because of Snake's inner monologue and memories of his mission in Leningrad and the loss of his parents to government action. We understand Snake's hatred of the government and his nihilistic nature. In the sequence, as shot, we don't really get a sense of who Plissken is; just that he has apparently committed a crime and is on the run. We don't really get a feel for his relationship with his partner, which affects the emotional impact at the end of the sequence. Ultimately, the film works better without this footage.
A note on the commentary track: Ox Baker was not seven feet tall. He is probably closer to the 6'6" to 6'7" range, although he was over 300 pounds. His bulk makes him appear larger than he really is, especially in a wrestling ring.
One used to wonder what this film would have looked like with a bigger budget. Carpenter sort of answered that with the sequel, Escape from LA. It was essentially the same film, with better effects and a West Coast sensibility; but, it doesn't hold a candle to the original. The lower budget caused the cast and crew to be more creative and they succeeded far better here. It would be good to see Snake again, but in a new environment, with a different plot. Russell's age could be an asset, as Carpenter could examine an older Snake, who must rely more on cunning than physical skills.