Movie poster for 1981's "Escape from New York."

Directed by

John Carpenter



Kurt Russell

Lee Van Cleef

Ernest Borgnine

Adrienne Barbeau

Donald Pleasence

Isaac Hayes

Harry Dean Stanton

Season Hubley





Released in



Running Time

1 Hr., 39 Mins.

Kurt Russell threatens Lee Van Cleef in 1981's "Escape from New York."

Escape from New York September 17, 2016 

In 1988, the national crime rate mysteriously rose by 400 percent.  Unable to rationally devise a plan to deter the number of misdemeanors within the country, the government effectively turned New York City into a maximum security prison.  With a fifty foot containment wall edging out every border, all waterways and bridges carefully closed off, it was and continues to be the only penitentiary in the U.S.  Criminals stuck within this behemoth of a correctional facility are able to do little besides fight to survive.  “The rules are simple,” explains Escape from New York’s emotionless narrator (a cameoing Jamie Lee Curtis).  “Once you go in, you don’t come out.”


Against the odds, the decision to turn the most prominent city in the United States has proven to be an unusually conducive one.  Despite the world’s sorry state — any spot that homes atrocities so rampant is bound to be a miserable place of living — disciplinary tactics are at their strongest.  And since Escape from New York, co-written (with Nick Castle) and directed by John Carpenter (HalloweenThe Thing), takes place nine years after that catastrophic statistic stabbed the pitiful heart of this fictional 1988, it’s safe to assume that things won’t be changing any time soon.


That is until Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), an ex-Special Forces soldier, lands himself in the titular cooler.  Shortly after his locking up is Air Force One, en route to a crucial peace summit between the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union, hijacked by vengeful terrorists.  Though the plane crashes at the center of Manhattan, conclusively killing every one of its passengers, the president (played by a noticeably un-presidential Donald Pleasence) manages to make it to the escape pod of the aircraft and cheat death.  


Ideally, he’d be immediately rescued by the prison’s highly trained guards.  But because the inner-workings of the city turned slammer are sufficiently run by the self-proclaimed Duke of New York City (Isaac Hayes), a glammed-out would-be mobster who drives around in a chandelier-draped pimpmobile, the president is promptly held hostage.  The duke and his henchmen promise to kill him if law enforcement tries anything tricky.  This problem is made all the more pertinent because of the commander in chief’s carrying of a time-sensitive audiotape instilled with information regarding the ins-and-outs of a new nuclear weapon.  If to fall into the wrong pair of hands, disaster, obviously, could very well ensue.


Willing to make use of Plissken’s professional background for the greater good of the country, Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) reluctantly offers to arrange a presidential pardon for his newest prisoner if he rescues the Leader of the Free World in a timely manner.  To ensure obedience, Hauk injects Plissken with deadly explosives capable of destroying his carotid arteries in a matter of seconds.  He has 22 hours to get the job done.  Fail, and he’s a goner.


And so we follow him as he navigates the terrifying streets of the now anarchical New York, as he slinks in and out of its shadows as he tries to piece together his next move.  Executed, in the process, is an uncommonly visionary action movie that views prowling threats and obstacles as mere thorns in its eye-patched hero’s side.  Taking itself about as seriously as a D-list celebrity being openly mocked at a Comedy Central roast, Escape from New York makes up for its lacking of budget (a scant six-million) with thorough ingeniousness and an expertly realized setting crafted by the ever-scrappy Carpenter (who’s also behind the film’s snarling but minimalist soundtrack).


From Adrienne Barbeau’s heaving bosoms to the rain-soaked, cyberpunk shaking up of the too-familiar cinematic characterization of New York City, the film is a glorious eyeful as in touch with its artistic output as its sense of tone and story.  It ranks as one of Carpenter’s most riskily audacious offerings, and yet his storytelling is persuasive and astonishingly effectual.  Its tension is unmistakable, and its sequential fluidity is shrewd.  The performances are even better; Russell, especially, is a serpentine scalawag we could watch fight greater evils for hours on end, and Van Cleef, unendingly looking like the meanest sonofabitch to have ever lived, is an intriguing antagonist more complicated than the usual going-through-the-motions sort of action movie fiend.


By the time its band of outsiders have earned their dues and the president is again in good hands (for now), we feel as if we’ve been on a journey; Escape from New York has deservedly earned its place among the 1980s’ best action films.  With a premise this good, a director this admirably quixotic, and a male lead this soundly tough-as-nails, losing is unsurmountable.  Now that I’ve seen Snake Plissken daringly escape from the wasteland of New York City, I’m now more fascinated by the prospect of watching him escape from Los Angeles than ever.  Until next time.  B+