Film / Escape from New York
The original mulleted, eyepatched badass named Snake.

"In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once-great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: Once you go in, you don't come out."

Released in 1981, Escape from New York is a cult-classic action film featuring the dream team of director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell.

20 Minutes into the Future (well, sixteen years, as the film takes place in the year 1997), the President's plane crashes in New York City — specifically Manhattan, which has become a giant penal colony filled with savage gangs that are led by "The Duke of New York" (Isaac Hayes). The commissioner of the United States Police Force, Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), is left without any realistic options for a rescue, so he recruits the most badass criminal he can find to get the President out: Snake Plissken (Russell). When Plissken says he wants nothing to do with the mission, Hauk forces Snake into compliance with an Explosive Leash — if Snake doesn't get the President out of New York within a certain amount of time, the leash goes boom and Snake goes with it.

This film is a classic of the dystopian future genre, and Snake himself is a classic Jerk with a Heart of Gold Anti-Hero. Snake's history is mostly just hinted at, but an out-of-print Novelization fills in some of the details.

The supporting cast includes a lineup of memorable character actors, including the aforementioned Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, and Adrienne Barbeau's cleavage (which frankly deserves its own credit).

Fifteen years later, Russell and Carpenter reunited for a sequel, Escape from L.A., which dispensed with much of this film's grittiness to lampoon Los Angeles and Hollywood culture. It was not met with nearly the same level of acclaim as this film.

A remake currently sits in Development Hell.

Escape from New York contains the following tropes:

  • Absolute Cleavage: Maggie, played by Adrienne Barbeau, displays copious decolletage in every scene.
  • Action Girl: Maggie is pretty handy with a pistol.
  • Afraid of Needles: Snake. "I don't like needles," he says before the physician Cronenberg injects him with a supposed anti-viral and bacterial serum. Turns out he was right to be untrusting, as the injection was actually an Explosive Leash.
  • Air Force One: A terrorist crashes it into New York, and the President survives only by getting into an Escape Pod.
  • A.K.A.-47: The United States Police use M16's with their handguards removed, presumably to give the rifles an unfamiliar 'futuristic' look, rather than because the police like scorching their hands after a few bursts.
  • The Alcatraz: New York Maximum Security Penitentiary, AKA Manhattan Island Prison. The only bridge into the island is mined, and the entire island is surrounded by a wall, and the perimeter is patrolled by helicopters and monitored 24/7. Escape is essentially impossible, and once prisoners go in, they never come out.
  • All There in the Manual: In 1981, Bantam Books published a movie tie-in novelization written by Mike McQuay that adopts a lean, humorous style reminiscent of the film. The novel is significant because it includes scenes that were cut out of the film, such as the Federal Reserve Depository robbery that results in Snake's incarceration. The novel provides motivation and backstory to Snake and Hauk - both disillusioned war veterans - deepening their relationship that was only hinted at it in the film. The novel explains how Snake lost his eye during the Battle for Leningrad in World War III, how Hauk became warden of New York, and Hauk's quest to find his crazy son who lives somewhere in the prison. The novel fleshes out the world that these characters exist in, at times presenting a future even bleaker than the one depicted in the film. The book explains that the West Coast is a no-man's land, and the country's population is gradually being driven crazy by nerve gas as a result of World War III.
  • Alternate History: The film's backstory and setting has become this.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Romero, as seen from his painted fingernails and some camp body movements.
  • An Aesop: That Humans Are Bastards when they have power over many, no matter how much they try to whitewash over it. The President is a shining example of humanity's savage murderous asshole nature. His ordeal as a prisoner of the Duke turns him from a typical Corrupt Bureaucrat into a Laughing Mad killer taking revenge on the man who held and humiliated him, showing that he is Not So Different from the scum that were thrown away and forgotten by the rest of the country. And the fact that he can go right back to being a stuffy bureaucrat again in the blink of an eye drives the point home that everyone with power is one step away from being a complete bastard in this dystopia. Contrast with Cabbie who is a simple, friendly, honest man with no agenda and winds up dead for it. Also contrast with Snake who's a selfish bastard, but he doesn't want power and doesn't commit acts of violence for pleasure. He is also honest about who and what he is.
  • Anti-Hero: Snake. Also counts as a Unscrupulous Hero at best, and a Nominal Hero at worst.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Snake Plissken.
  • Batter Up: Snake fights Slag with baseball bats in a Blood Sport for the amusement of the Duke. In the second round, they're given bats with nails driven into the heads and trashcan lids for shields.
  • Big Bad: The Duke of New York, who captures the president and uses him as a hostage in a plan to get himself and his followers out of Manhattan without being killed by the police force surrounding the island.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: Manhattan is a dystopian penal colony. By the early 80s, most major American cities had seen anyone who could afford it flee to the suburbs, infrastructure was decaying, cities were bankrupt, and of course crime was out of control. New York, as America's largest and most prominent city was the ultimate symbol of this urban decay. In the late 70s the federal government refused to bail the city out. This led many New Yorkers to declare "America has given up on New York."
  • The Blade Always Lands Pointy End In: Snake's throwing knife is always right on target. It helps that it has two blades, allowing it to land anyway.
  • Blood Sport: The Duke arranges for an entertaining deathmatch between his Giant Mook and Snake.
  • Bond One-Liner: The President of all people gets one when he kills the Duke. Doubles as a Call Back and an Ironic Echo.
    President: You are the Duke of New York. But you ain't number one.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Snake's MAC-10 is never reloaded once, and it fires about ten times as many bullets as he apparently brought with him. This also applies to Snake's revolver; not only does it only get reloaded once (and Snake only seems to have brought two speedloaders if the loadout on the table is any indication), but when Maggie gets charged at by the Duke, the revolver with six chambers is fired seven times.
  • Boxed Crook: Snake, at the beginning of the film. He's about to be sent into Manhattan as a prisoner but gets roped into rescuing the president by Hauk.
  • Bullethole Door: During his escape from the Crazies, Snake makes one of these in a dilapidated apartment wall and kicks it in.
  • Cast Full of Crazy: Nobody in this film could be called completely sane. Even the President gets in on the lunacy in the end when taking his vengeance on the Duke
  • Chekhov's Gun: Subverted. Snake takes a wide array of weapons with him, but doesn't get a chance to use them all.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Brain acts just loyal enough to Snake and the Duke on different occasions to avoid being shot, but doesn't hesitate to screw them both over if it helps him get away.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Cabbie has been driving his taxi in Manhattan for 30 years which means it's possible that he's not even there for any crime, but may have refused to leave when the city was walled up.
    Cabbie: Ahh, Snake Plissken in my cab! Wait til I tell Eddie!
  • Contrived Coincidence: Pretty fortunate for the guards that Snake was entering the prison just moments after Air Force One crashed in the city.
  • Cool Car: The Duke's Cadillac Fleetwood with hydraulic suspension and chandeliers on the hood.
  • Cool Old Guy: Cabbie, who drives a taxi in the middle of the New York City prison and has done so for 30 years—suggesting he's a native New Yorker who won't let the City's new status as a maximum security penitentiary stop him from living there. He's always on the lookout for his friends, and not even the violence common on its streets can dampen his optimism.
  • Crapsack World: The United States seems to have become this, with the crime rate rising by 400% in 1988 and Manhattan island being converted to a maximum security prison. When the movie was made in 1981, this didn't seem too unreasonable to expect of the future.
  • David vs. Goliath: Snake versus Ox Baker's Giant Mook character, Slag. Snake is obviously at a disadvantage in terms of raw strength, but he manages to beat Slag due to his superior speed.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Snake.
    Hauk: About an hour ago, a small jet went down inside New York City. The president was on board.
    Snake: The president of what?
    Hauk: That's not funny, Plissken.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The woman Snake meets in the Chock Full 'O Nuts is set up to be Snake's sidekick, but she gets killed (and eaten?) by the Crazies in the very same scene.
  • Disproportionate Retribution
    • Being sent to Manhattan Island means a life sentence with no chance of release. Once you go in, you don't come out. There are no provisions inside to keep the prisoners fed and housed (though food is implied to be sent once a month by the girl in Chock Full O' Nuts), they simply fend for themselves in any way that they can. It's heavily implied that everyone who commits a crime in the United States gets thrown in there.
    • Subverted with Cabbie: He's just a cab driver who refused to leave.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul":
    • In both Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., the U.S. government is on a Last Name Basis with protagonist Snake Plissken, to which he consistently replies, "Call me Snake." However, during the respective climaxes of both movies, when one of the government's men finally does call him Snake, he reverses his previous attitude with the reply, "The name's Plissken".
    • Also, Brain really doesn't care to be called by his given name, "Harold".
  • The Dragon: Romero for the Duke, as he's the one the Duke sends to deliver the ultimatum to Hauk, and the one guarding the president when the Duke holds him hostage.
  • The Dreaded: The Duke of New York, A-Number-One. As Cabbie says: "You can't meet the Duke! Are you crazy? Nobody gets to meet the Duke. You meet him once and then you're dead!"
  • The Driver: Called, appropriately enough, Cabbie. He provides transportation for Snake, Brain, and Maggie, and the president after he's rescued.
  • Dub Name Change: In Italy, Snake is known as "Jena" (hyena), due to "Serpente" (snake) being too long to properly sync up with the video (oddly enough, the Spanish dub averts this, in spite of their word for snake - Serpiente - being even longer).
  • Escape Pod: Air Force One has one for the President only, enabling him to survive the crash.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Brain hates being called by his actual name, Harold.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Snake's not evil, but he's a criminal. However, he's genuinely disgusted about the President's obtuse, half-hearted regret after he asked him how he felt about the people who died saving his life.
  • Event Title
  • Everybody Calls Him "Barkeep": Cabbie, who actually identifies himself as "Cabbie" when visiting Brain.
  • Evil Laugh: Romero, The Dragon to the Duke has a high-pitched, mocking cackle.
  • Exact Time to Failure: The explosives planted near Snake's carotid artery will kill him at a pre-set time unless he returns with the president.
  • Explosive Leash: The government ensures that Snake won't give up his mission by implanting explosives into his body that will kill him if he doesn't return within a day.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The entire movie takes place over the course of just a little more than 24 hours.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Snake sports one.
  • Female Gaze: Come on, you know where you were looking during Snake's Shirtless Scene...
  • Finger in the Mail: Romero taunts the government troops with the kidnapped President's severed finger (complete with a ring with the Presidential Seal).
  • Forced Prize Fight: Snake is forced to fight a Giant Mook after he's captured by The Duke, but he manages to win the fight despite his leg wound.
  • Giant Mook: Ox Baker's character, a huge, bearded, shirtless guy (called "Slag" in the script) who battles Snake in a makeshift arena, for the amusement of the Duke and his men.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Snake Plissken has a lovely mane of light brown hair, which makes him look a little wild and a little noble at the same time. Romero, on the other hand, has a teased-up shock of spiky hair that makes him look obviously evil.
  • The Government: Fascist and totalitarian.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: In 1997, the Cold War has turned hot and the USA is fighting a (presumably conventional) war against the USSR.
  • Handcuffed Briefcase: After a terrorist takes control of Air Force One, the President handcuffs a briefcase to his wrist and enters the plane's Escape Pod. Later on it's revealed that the briefcase holds a tape which explains the secret of nuclear fusion.
  • Heroic Neutral: Snake, obviously. "I don't give a fuck about your war, or your president." He would prefer to just take the Gullfire and fly straight to Canada, letting the US, China and the Soviet Union blow each other to hell, but he can't because of the Explosive Leash he's injected with.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Maggie. Later, Snake asks the President if he knew how many people died to save him. The President's rote response doesn't please Snake.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather: Snake's old worn out leather coat.
  • Hidden Depths: Snake does prove to legitimately care about Brain, Maggie and Cabbie.
  • High Concept: The President has been taken hostage in a future Manhattan that's been turned into a city-wide prison. And it's up to a badass criminal to get him out.
  • Hollywood Healing: Averted with the arrow snake takes to the leg. He limps the rest of the movie and is clearly in pain at times, the rest of the time he's probably going on adrenaline.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Averted with Snake's MAC-10.
  • The Hyena: Romero. His laugh itself is quite reminiscent of a hyena's.
  • I Just Want to Be Free: Snake's entire motivation is that he just want to get away and be left alone to his own devices.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The "Crazies" come out at night when they run out of food, and the Cabbie claims that they'll "kill you and strip you in ten seconds flat."
  • Inexplicably Awesome: The movie tells us that Snake is an ex black ops soldier twice decorated who turned his back on his country and tried to rob the Federal Reserve. No reasons for Snake's choices that led him down that path are ever presented, at least in the movie. The novelization says he feels betrayed by the government for the "Leningrad Ruse" (the military action that cost him his eye), and that his parents were burned alive in their home by the United States Police Force.
  • Insufferable Genius: Brain. It's a minor miracle he's still alive in Manhattan since everyone hates him, save Maggie and Cabbie. Brain is also the only person in Manhattan who can produce gasoline, possibly refined from crude oil obtained from the pump briefly shown well panning through his base (presumably the New York Public Library).
    Mook #1: That Brain is a real pain in the ass. He's always sniffing around like a dog.
    Mook #2: He comes up with the gas...
  • It's All About Me:
    • Snake cannot be persuaded to give a shit about anything but his own interests. Considering there is no particularly good side for him to be on, one can hardly blame him.
    • Every single supporting character is like this. Hauk wants Snake to do his dirty work. Brain just wants to escape. The Duke, Romero, and his army of goons will happily murder anyone on their way to busting out. The President is a selfish uncaring asshole too. The only character who's even remotely nice or thinks of anyone but himself is Cabbie, and even he will cut and run if the Duke is nearby. In the end, caring about Snake gets Cabbie killed along with nearly everyone else.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Snake. He only wants his freedom, though he is shown to be remorseful for the innocents (relatively speaking) who died to get the President out.
  • Keep the Reward: After the rescue, the president is willing to give Snake anything he wants as a reward. Snake wants only one thing.
    The President: I want to thank you. Anything you want, you just name it.
    Snake: Just a moment of your time.
    The President: Yes?
    Snake: We did get you out. A lot of people died in the process. I just wondered how you felt about it.
  • Kick the Dog: After the rescue, the President gives a tepid and distracted answer when Snake asks how he feels about the lives lost during his rescue. This convinces Snake to [[spoiler:destroy the MacGuffin].
  • Kill the Cutie: Cabbie. He spends most of the whole movie as a happy-go-lucky, overly friendly wide-eyed optimist who looks out for Plissken (even to the extent of throwing a molotov cocktail at some thugs, driving him for free and coming back for him just in time). Then, despite being in an explosion that leaves the others inexplicably unscathed, he dies horribly. Thankfully, Snake gets some justice for his unnecessary death by screwing the ungrateful president.
  • Laughing Mad: Romero, who cackles maniacally in one scene, in keeping with his general camp demeanor.
  • Living Legend: Everyone knows Snake Plissken, even the inmates of Manhattan. Everyone Snake talks to knows about the Kansas City incident and thought Snake was dead. Even Cabbie, who's been in New York since before it became a prison and couldn't have heard about Snake's activities except by rumor from other inmates.
  • The Load: The president.
    Snake: We have to move fast.
    The President: You're goddamn right I'll move fast! [He doesn't.]
  • MacGuffin: The tape with the secret of nuclear fusion.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Snake has...quite a following.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Snake Plissken.
  • Nice Guy: Cabbie is the only character who ever sports a sunny smile and disposition at any time.
  • Nineties Antihero: Snake exemplifies this despite being nine years ahead of his time, making him an Ur-Example. Possibly Trope Maker?
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Cabbie is the only genuinely nice guy in the entire film, and helping Snake and the President escape gets him killed by a landmine in the end. Snake avenges him, in a way.
  • Nominal Hero: Snake, established as a hardened criminal, only agrees to rescue the President of the United States because an Explosive Leash will kill him if he doesn't return with the President in a day. Otherwise, Snake would be happy to hijack his glider, fly off to Canada and let the world conflict take care of itself.
  • Noodle Incident
    • There has to be a reason everybody thinks Snake is dead.
    • The Kansas City incident where Brain abandoned Snake and Fresno Bob is another one. It's possible that Snake could have almost died there, as he asks Brain, "Do you know what they did to Bob?" The incident was filmed, but was removed for pacing. It is available on the Blu-Ray re-release of the film, revealing Bob's fate. He was skinned alive in front of Snake. William "Bill" Taylor, Snake's old war buddy and partner in crime, was also gunned down.
  • No Name Given: The woman Snake meets in the Chock Full O' Nuts. She doesn't give her name and is listed in the credits as "Woman in Chock Full O' Nuts".
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: The cassette tape holding the secret of nuclear fusion.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: Snake absolutely despises the authorities who literally have to coerce him into working for them with a tailor-made "kill you in 24 hours" device in his body or he'd just bail on them in a heartbeat.
  • Off-the-Shelf FX: What appeared to be an impressive (for 1981) wire-frame CGI image of Lower Manhattan was actually a physical model with the buildings outlined with glow-in-the-dark green tape and filmed in black light. Courtesy of none other than James Cameron. At the time, real CGI was still a nascent technology and too expensive for indie film-makers like John Carpenter.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The President when he discovers that Snake's switched the nuclear fusion tape with Cabbie's, and thus he's playing the dignitaries "Bandstand Boogie".
    • Hauk and his second-in-command when the flight code ID for the plane trespassing over the prison airspace comes through — revealing that it's Air Force One.
  • The Only One: Snake is told he's the man for the job due to his prior black ops experience and his expendability.
  • Our Presidents Are Different: Well for starters, he sounds British. An in-universe reason was given, but seriously it was to give Donald Pleasance the role.
  • Parrot Exposition: An example occurs early on in the film. Also Hilarious in Hindsight.
    Hauk: You go in, find the President and bring him back in 24 hours, and you're a free man.
    Snake: 24 hours, huh?
  • Phrase Catcher: Everyone who knows about Snake greets him with a variant of, "Snake Plissken? I thought you were dead."
  • Plot Armor: A landmine neatly bisects a car between the front and back seats, with only one out of the five passengers being killed.
  • Precision F-Strike
    • Snake's initial response to Hauk's proposal:
    I don't give a fuck about your war, or your president.
    • And again when Brain tries to dodge his questions:
      Snake: *holding his gun to Brain's chest* Where's the president?!
      Brain: Swear to God, Snake, I don't know—
      Snake: Don't fuck with me!
  • Punch Clock Hero: Snake, although kinda motivated since he has microscopic explosives that will rupture his carotid arteries in 24 hours.
  • The Quincy Punk: A few of The Duke's henchmen sport this getup.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Hauk, as he keeps his word about letting Snake go after he rescues the president. Even Snake seems to think this, despite the Teeth-Clenched Teamwork.
  • Red Right Hand: The Duke has a twitch in his right eye.
  • Refusal of the Call: Snake attempts this at the start of the film, but Hauk manages to convince him to go along with the plan, then deploys an Explosive Leash.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: "I heard you were dead." For some reason everyone thinks Snake Plissken is dead. He's most assuredly not.
  • Running Gag
    • "Snake Plissken? I thought you were dead." Lampshaded later in the film, where Snake meets up with Brain and the others after they ditched him to get to the glider.
      Brain: Listen, Snake, I thought you were dead-!
      Snake: Yeah, you and everybody else!
    • "Call me Snake". followed up by later "The name's Plissken".
  • Sanity Slippage: The President suffers one, combined with a Roaring Rampage of Revenge when he stops the winch that's bringing Snake to safety (keep in mind, he's about to be killed by explosives in his neck), to machine gun The Duke, screaming, "You're the Duke! You're the Duke! You're the Duke!... You're the Duke - you're ''A-Number One''."
  • Scary Black Man: The Duke of New York (played by Isaac Hayes), who is not only physically imposing but has a fearsome reputation throughout the city-prison.
    Snake: I want to meet the Duke.
    Cabbie: You can't meet the Duke! Are you crazy? Nobody gets to meet the Duke. You meet him once and then you're dead!
  • Secret Test: After the rescue, Snake asks the President how he feels about the lives that were lost rescuing him. Snake uses the President's answer to decide whether he'll give him the real tape with the secrets of nuclear fusion. It turns out that the President is rather careless about the loss of life, failing the test, so Snake destroys the tape.
  • The '70s: Despite being released in 1981, the film still predates the optimism of The '80s and is very much a product of 70s grit and pessimism. John Carpenter wrote the script in the mid-70s in response to the Watergate scandal.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Snake decides to humiliate the President and destroy the nuclear tape because he decides that the President isn't worthy of the power.
  • Shonen Hair: Romero's wild, spiky upswept 'do.
  • Shout-Out
    • "I thought you were dead" was also a Running Gag in the 1971 John Wayne movie Big Jake. Several times throughout that movie, people tell Jake McCandless (Wayne's character) that they heard he was dead.
    • The "Crazies" are, no doubt, a Shout-Out to the George Romero movie of the same name.
    • The characters Cronenberg (the doctor who injects Snake with the explosives) and Romero (the spiky-haired Mook with the crazy laugh) are named after David Cronenberg and George Romero, respectively.
  • Sleeves Are for Wimps: Snake, the antihero, spends most of the rescue mission wearing a shirt with no sleeves, showing off his powerful arms.
  • Spiritual Successor: Although not intended, this film's premise is fairly similar to The Warriors, in which the protagonists have one night to escape from a dystopian New York City crawling with street trash and urban warlords. Some parts of the soundtracks even sound similar.
  • State Sec: The United States Police Force, who despite their name has arms and equipment on par with the military.
  • Stealth Pun: The abandoned store where Snake and a woman are attacked by crazies is called Chock Full O' Nuts.
  • Stylistic Suck: The song "Everyone's Coming To New York" is sung by various criminals, and even on the soundtrack CD, the singers sing slightly out of tune, and various interludes are played on kazoos. Why yes, hilarity most certainly does ensue.
  • Tall, Dark and Snarky: Snake is a macho, grizzled and handsome Anti-Hero dressed in black and prone to snide remarks.
  • Timed Mission: Snake has 24 hours to get the President out of New York before the timer on his Explosive Leash hits zero.
  • Tracking Device
    • Snake is given a tracer. When he pushes a button his position can be tracked for 15 minutes.
    • The President wears a vital signs bracelet that broadcasts a "sig pulse." Snake is given a device that can home in on the signal, showing direction and distance to the device.
  • Trashcan Bonfire: In the scene where Romero approaches Bob Hauk to deliver an ultimatum.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: This film takes place in 1997. In 1988, the US crime rate rose 400%; Manhattan was turned into the maximum security prison for the whole country and the US became an authoritarian nation as a result. There is a (presumably non-nuclear) war going on with the Soviet Union, and the whole film begins as Communist terrorists skyjack Air Force One. Cold War-phobia was very popular in The '80s.
  • World War III: The Cold War apparently became hot at some point. Snake Plissken is noted to be a decorated veteran from the Battles of Leningrad and Siberia, and the main plot revolves around retrieving the President so he can present an offer to Russia and China that could end the war.
  • Zeerust: While cassette tapes were still widely used in 1997, telex were gone by then. The wireframe guidance images in the glider might raise some eyebrows, but it's conceivable that such a light aircraft would use simple computer graphics.

Alternative Title(s): Escape From New York