Escape From New York (1981)

escape from new york

“I heard you were dead.”

The Scoop: 1981 R, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasance, and Harry Dean Stanton

Tagline: 1997. New York is now a maximum security prison. Breaking out is impossible. Breaking in is insane.

Summary Capsule: Special forces convict must infiltrate the world’s largest prison to rescue the President. Sight-seeing, optional.


Justin’s rating: In this prison, you can visit a Broadway show, drop a penny from the Empire State Building, and eat in delicious Little Italy. Best prison ever, in other words!

Justin’s review: When you become a famous action star, you really can’t fully extradite yourself from the role that made you famous. Stallone has Rocky, Schwarzenegger has The Terminator, Willis has John McClaine, Eastwood has Dirty Harry, Ford has Indiana Jones, and Campbell has Ash. For Kurt Russell, Snake Plissken will follow him all the days of his life as a smirking cult angel that roosts on his left shoulder.

Without Snake, Escape from New York would be an interesting idea on a shoestring budget — but no more than that. With our growly one-eyed anti-hero, the film goes up a good letter grade, from sirloin to prime rib. Russell obviously enjoys being the grumpy, reluctant action hero, and rarely raises his voice above a raspy whisper even when he’s mowing down hordes of crazies on the streets. He’s like your Uncle Waldo, only not giving inappropriate speeches in his underwear during morning breakfast.

In this movie, it’s the FUTURE… of 1997! Jamie Lee Curtis does a brief voice-over to inform us that the U.S. devised a solution for prison overpopulation which was to wall off the Manhattan Island and ship all of the criminals there without any possibility of parole. The bridges are mined, the water patrolled, and the police kind of grumpy. We’re also told that this is the only remaining prison in the country, which makes me wonder:

  • So if you get busted with three ounces of dope, then you get an automatic life sentence? The same as rapists, killers, and telemarketers? That doesn’t seem quite right.
  • How’d they convince all of the residents of Manhattan to pack up and go, with the real estate there going for as high as it was? Wouldn’t it have been much cheaper for the government to scoot out all of the residents of North Dakota, and then wall off that state? I assure you, nobody would’ve been as put out by that.
  • What does “the last, most gargantuan maximum security prison” do to property values of the neighboring boroughs in New York and New Jersey?
  • Is the Statue of Liberty the new warden? She can be tough, but fair. Or so I’ve heard.

As we puzzle through this, we’re handed the following scenario: A terrorist has hijacked Air Force One and crashes it into the New York Prison, but not before the president ejects in a trendy pod that free falls through eighty stories of a building. With the president captured by underground gang forces, only One Man can be entrusted with such an essential search and rescue mission: a convicted criminal who hates the government!

Seriously? Is that the standard military response plan — in case of presidential kidnapping, eschew your highly trained police and military forces and go straight to the nearest felon with an eye patch? Because, darn tootin’ if it doesn’t work!

Faced with a presidential pardon if he succeeds, and a bomb exploding in the head if he doesn’t, Snake ponies up and enters the prison like a man with a hiatal hernia. He’s not happy about the mission, but he’ll get it done. Even if he has to search every abandoned department store until he… ooh! Sale at Macy’s! He’ll be back in three hours!

Escape From New York was one of John Carpenter’s first babies, and his love for it shows in every decrepit sewer-dwelling scab that creeps down the street. It’s such a great idea (if preposterous) for a movie, and its lead so iconic that you can’t help but fall in love with it, even with the minimal production values present.
I kept thinking that this could’ve gone from cult to widespread mainstream if the studios had pumped a 20 million or so more into it. As it is, Carpenter does a great job with very little, although I could imagine his frustration at wanting to do more.
It’s a movie that launched a sequel, a proposed remake (sans Russell or Carpenter), inspired the Metal Gear video games, and entrenched a made-for-soap-opera action hero into pop culture history. It’s also pretty freaking cool. I’d tell you to see it, but I’d have to kill you when it’s all over.
He is so very, very happy to see you. Hug time!


  • Jamie Lee Curtis was the narrator (uncredited)
  • Hideo Kojima, creator of the hit video game series Metal Gear Solid, is an open fan of Escape From N.Y., and named his main character “Snake”. In MGS2, Snake refers to himself with the alias of “Iroquois Pliskin”.
  • The wire-frame computer graphics on the display screens in the glider were not actually computer graphics. (Computers capable of 3D wire-frame imaging were way too expensive when this was made.) To generate the “wire-frame” images, they built a model of the city, painted it black, attached bright white tape to the model buildings in an orderly grid, and moved a camera through the model city.
  • A scene in the beginning of the film where Snake and another criminal are robbing a high-security bank, which leads to his arrest and sentence to New York, was in the original script but was cut from the film before release.
  • The only scene actually filmed in New York was the opening dolly shot, which follows a character pass the Statue of Liberty. The rest was filmed in East St. Louis, Illinois (across the river from the decidedly more wealthy St. Louis proper), which had been burned out in 1976 during a massive urban fire. Carpenter and his crew convinced the city to shut off the electricity to ten blocks at a time at night and shot most of the movie in the summer of 1979 and 1980.
  • The shot where the helicopter glides over Central Park were actually filmed in San Fernando. The buildings in the background were matte-paintings by future director James Cameron.
  • Isaac Hayes’s ’77 Cadillac Fleetwood sedan with the fender-mounted chandeliers is the first art car in a feature film.

Groovy Quotes:

Bob Hauk: I’m not a fool, Plissken!
Snake Plissken: Call me Snake.

The Duke: They sent in their best man, and when we roll across the 59th Street bridge tomorrow, on our way to freedom, we’re going to have their best man leading the way – from the neck up! On the hood of my car!

The Duke: Snake Plissken… I’ve heard of you. I heard you were dead!

Bob Hauk: There was an accident. About an hour ago, a small jet went down inside New York City. The President was on board.
Snake Plissken: The president of what?

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • Escape from L.A.
  • The Warriors
  • Big Trouble In Little China


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