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.

Escape From New York (1981) is a cult-classic action film featuring the dream team of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. The story is one of the classics: a rescue mission. The President's plane has crashed in the badlands, and so Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) is forced to recruit the most Badass criminal available to go in after him. That man is Snake Plissken, and if that name doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the character, you probably shouldn't be watching this kind of movie in the first place. If you still need a clue, he's wearing an eyepatch. And the only way to get him to agree to help is by putting on an Explosive Leash and turning him loose.

Oh, and as you may have worked out from the title, the badlands in question are the ruins of New York. Because this film is set Twenty Minutes into the Future (or rather, sixteen years, in the year 1997), and Manhattan has become a giant ruin of a penal colony, full of savage gangs and ruled over by the Duke of New York, played by the late great Isaac Hayes.

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

The supporting cast includes a lineup of memorable character actors, including Lee 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 the grittiness to lampoon Los Angeles and Hollywood culture. It was not met with nearly the same level of acclaim as the original.

A remake of Escape From New York is currently in development hell.

This film provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Alternate History: The film's backstory and setting has become this.
  • Anti-Hero: Snake. Also counts as a Unscrupulous Hero at best, and a Nominal Hero at worst.
  • Awesome McCoolname: Snake Plissken.
  • Badass: The protagonist of the film, Snake Plissken, is already famous for being a pretty badass infiltration expert, which is why Hauk chooses him to be the one to rescue the president.
  • Batter Up: Snake vs. a huge guy in a Blood Sport.
  • 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: Obviously. While the premise was far-fetched, at the time it wasn't inconceivable. By the early 80's 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 70's 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.
  • 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 10x 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.
  • Illinois and Missouri Doubling: Filmed in East St. Louis and St. Louis to keep the budget low. Entire areas were in such a state of neglect, to the point where sets didn't even have to be built. Four years later, the scene of the Batter Up Blood Sport (see above) was renovated into a hoity-toity shopping area — visual Mood Dissonance.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: Brain hates being 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 Driver: Called, ironically 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 the fact that their word for snake (serpiente) is 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.
  • 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.
  • Forced Prize Fight: Snake is forced to fight a Giant Mook after he's capture 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 who battles Snake in a makeshift arena, for the amusement of the Duke and his men.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Averted with Snake's MAC-10.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Insistent Terminology / 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 "Harold".
  • 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.
      • Hidden Depths: Snake does prove to legitimately care about Brain, Maggie and Cabbie.
    • The President is a selfish uncaring asshole too.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 / Perverse Sexual Lust: Snake has quite a following.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie displays copious décolletage in all of her scenes.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Snake Plissken.
  • Nice Guy: Cabbie. He's 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?
  • 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 gunned down, although in a slightly excessive way.
      • This is a reference to the 1971 John Wayne picture, Big Jake, which was a big influence on Escape From New York. Several times throughout that movie, people tell Wayne's character, Jake McCandless that they heard he was dead.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Plot Armor: A landmine neatly bisects a car between the front and back seats with only one out of the five passenges 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.
  • 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''."
  • Secret Test of Character: Snake gives the President one after they get back out. El Presidente completely fails it, which leads Snake to secretly destroy the nuclear fusion tape as punishment, leaving him to humiliate himself by playing Cabbie's copy of "Bandstand Boogie" to the dignitaries.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • Timed Mission: Both films. Subverted in the sequel in that it was a fake threat.
  • Tracking Device
    • Snake is given a tracer. When he pushes a button his position can be tracked for 15 minutes.
    • The President is wearing 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.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: Occurs in 1997. In 1988 the U.S. crime rate rose 400%, Manhattan was turned into the maximum security prison for the whole country, and the U.S. became authoritarian. There is a war going on with Soviet Union (presumably non-nuclear) and the whole film begins as Communist terrorists skyjack Air Force One. Cold War-phobia was very popular in The Eighties.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After Snake lands in New York, Cabbie is the first major character encountered. Cabbie takes Snake, Brain and Maggie to the Duke's headquarters, then drives off after panicking over the Duke's reputation. Later, as Snake, Brain and Maggie make their way with the President to the 69th Street Bridge, Cabbie suddenly returns, with no explanation as to where he was throughout a third of the movie. Seems like Contrived Coincidence.
    • He's a taxi driver in New York (it's implied he's just a New Yorker who never left). If there's a fare involved, he'll show up.
    • It can be assumed that since Cabbie traded for the tape that he was still around Duke's other men when Brain and Maggie broke out the President, he could have followed Duke's men who were following Brain and Maggie.
  • 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