‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (Frank Darabont, 1994)
The beloved “Shawshank Redemption,” which currently holds the title of “Favorite Movie Ever by Pretty Much Every Human On Earth,” is often remembered for its immortal themes of hope, courage and understanding, which is a shame because it’s also a movie about busting out of the joint. The fact that the escape carried out mostly in secret by Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) isn’t revealed in the typical nuts-and-bolts fashion but rather casually and after-the-fact by writer/director Frank Darabont, doesn’t take away from its exciting, emotional oomph. What’s more is that “The Shawshank Redemption,” unlike many prison break movies, investigates the toll that freedom takes on the former prisoners (including Morgan Freeman), eschewing the freewheeling thrill for more deeply felt meditation. (Robbins’ freedom is met with a very literal spiritual rebirth, complete with heavenly baptism.) There’s a reason this is considered such a classic: Because it’s that damn good.
‘Escape from New York’ (John Carpenter, 1981)/’Escape from LA’ (John Carpenter, 1996)
Anyone who lives in the Big Apple can occasionally feel like they’re trapped inside some kind of hellish prison. But in 1981, John Carpenter made those feelings real by creating a futuristic thriller where New York City has been left for dead, quarantined and closed off from the rest of the country, as a massive, post-apocalyptic penal colony. Into this inferno goes Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell), a legendary criminal tasked with retrieving the president of the United States after his plane goes down over Manhattan. Of course getting into New York is only equaled by getting out of New York, and in that sense “Escape from New York” serves as both a prison break movie as well as a prison break-in movie. (Trippy!) Its long-overdue sequel, which upped the campiness to a nearly psychedelic degree, takes place in a Los Angeles severed from the country by a giant earthquake. The social critique isn’t as pointed but it has its own kind of cracked-out “Looney Tunes” spirit.
‘Escape from Alcatraz’ (Don Siegel, 1979)
Based on the supposedly true story of Frank Morris, who along with John Anglin and Clarence Anglin, attempted to escape from the floating fortress prison of Alcatraz in June of 1962. Here Clint Eastwood stars as Morris, in what would be the final collaboration between the star and hard-boiled auteur Don Siegel. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting out of Alcatraz, which is kind of the point, especially considering the contentious nature of the story, but Siegel brings a singular grittiness to the proceedings (Eastwood almost gets raped in the shower) and a commitment to the material that puts aside any doubts, at least for a couple of hours. The pop culture legacy of “Escape from Alcatraz” is pretty profound, too – when JJ Abrams launched a short-lived series about the prison a couple of years ago, he hired an actor who more or less did an extended impression of Patrick McGoohan’s warden. Even if Morris never got out, his story still lingers.
‘The Big Doll House’ (Jack Hill, 1971)
The early seventies saw a bizarre smattering of “women in prison” films (including, incidentally, a movie called “Women in Prison,” released the same year as “The Big Doll House”), the best of which were directed by Jack Hill and starred Pam Grier. This is the first film in that weird mini-genre. Courtesy of Hill and Grier, the movies follows a woman who kills her husband and is sent to some tropical hellhole in an unnamed country, supervised by a coven of villainous women. (This is kind of like a perverse version of “Chicago,” actually, now that I think of it.) These women-in-prison movies were unlikely vehicles for feminist subtext, and as such the female prisoners must have their revenge, eventually overthrowing their captors and taking back what’s rightfully theirs: freedom!
‘Chicken Run’ (Peter Lord and Nick Park, 2000)
Sure, “The Great Escape” is the classic but it’s also really long and honestly kind of boring and doesn’t feature any stop-motion animated chickens. So we’re going to throw it in the direction of Aardman Animation’s minor miracle, their first animated feature, which utilizes the basics of “The Great Escape” but moves the action to a British farm. (The chickens were initially used for eggs but the farm converts to selling chicken pies — yikes!) As the American rooster whose cocksure composure helps mobilize the rest of the feathered flock, Mel Gibson gives one of his most charismatic and underrated performances. Directed by “Wallace and Gromit” creator Nick Park and Aardman cofounder Peter Lord, “Chicken Run” displays a keen understanding of prison escape movie clichés, both celebrating and subverting the genre in lively new ways and proving that Aardman is just as amazing an animation studio as stateside powerhouse Pixar.
‘Fast Five’ (Justin Lin, 2011)
“Fast Five” is another movie that isn’t exactly a jailbreak film but has one spectacular jailbreak sequence that is nothing short of virtuosic (sort of like “Silence of the Lambs,” except with muscle cars). The fifth entry in the lucrative, intermittently exciting “Fast and the Furious” franchise, it opens with Vin Diesel’s criminal hot-rodder riding in a prison bus. Of course, this being “Fast and Furious,” some of his buddies show up and promptly liberate him. It’s a sequence that is absolute edge-of-your-seat entertainment and one that does much to open up the franchise considerably (an ethos that continued through the film, roughly transitioning the series from a collection of racing sequences into a genuine heist movie). It would have been easy to write something celebratory about “Stalag 17,” Billy Wilder’s amazing prison break movie that won William Holden an Oscar, but honestly, “Fast Five” was way more fun to talk about.
‘Toy Story 3’ (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
How ballsy for Disney and Pixar to conclude (at least, for now) their epic “Toy Story” franchise with a bizarre, darkly tinged prison break movie, throwing our most beloved toys into the gulag of a daycare rumpus room ruled over by a malevolent teddy bear that talks like an understudy in a Tennessee Williams play. The complexity of the escape plot, hatched by Woody (Tom Hanks) and the rest of the toys, only adds to the richness and hilariousness of the movie (which was already deeply bittersweet and achingly beautiful). Our favorite part of the plot involves Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), who sneaks underneath a door by using a tortilla as his body. It’s a moment that pushes the movie into delicately surrealist territory, which is probably inherent when you’re shrinking prison escape movie tropes into miniaturized, toy-shaped form. If only more prison escape flicks were this joyously unhinged.
‘The Way Back’ (Peter Weir, 2010)
Based on the true story of a group of World War II prisoners who break out of an interment camp in Siberia and walk (<em>WALKED</em>) across the Himalayas back to freedom, this amazing, occasionally grueling movie by Australian director Peter Weir was unfairly overlooked upon its initial release. Hopefully this will change as time goes on, because it’s certainly an accomplishment of enormous power. Weir makes sure that you feel every step of that arduous journey and the actors (among them Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan) give it their all, in performances that were even more heartbreakingly ignored. While not exactly easy to watch, it is incredibly rewarding, as the emphasis is less on the escape (which is partially hatched by an imprisoned actor played by Mark Strong) and more on what follows; it’s truly harrowing and deeply felt in ways its Hollywood counterparts rarely are.
‘Silence of the Lambs’ (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
While not technically a prison-break movie, “Silence of the Lambs” features one of the most unforgettable prison break sequences in cinematic history. The sequence involves Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who has made elaborate maneuvers to get himself out of a maximum security prison and into a cathedral-esque holding cell in the ballroom of a hotel. The rest of the escape, which involves a violent beating (why wear white, Hannibal, if you’re just going to get it splattered with blood?) and Lecter wearing a man’s skin, Leatherface-style, is breathlessly staged and totally terrifying. It’s one of the best escape sequences ever, made all the more perverse by the fact that you find yourself rooting for the psychopathic murderer to get away. It also marks, internally, the moment when “Silence of the Lambs” switches from keenly studies psychological thriller to Grand Guignol horror, and never lets up. Go Hannibal go!
‘Cool Hand Luke’ (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
Maybe the grand daddy of all prison escape movies, “Cool Hand Luke” — awash in ‘60s cool (look at that poster) and anchored by an iconic central performance by Paul Newman (as a dude sent to prison for cutting the heads off parking meters) — is an unforgettable experience that makes you want to stick it to the man. In terms of the jailbreak genre, “Cool Hand Luke” is notable for the messiness of Newman’s escape plan, which is less calculated and more of an anything-goes grab-bag approach (one that doesn’t always succeed). Everything about the film is quoted, ripped-off, or referenced, from the leader of the prison (played by Strother Martin). The makers of every film involving a jailbreak or an escaped prisoner owe a whole hell of a lot to “Cool Hand Luke” (the jailbreak sequence from Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” comes to mind). It’s simply the best.