196. Escape From New York ( US 1981)


Manhattan is turned into a giant prison. The President is abducted and held hostage there. War hero and convicted criminal Snake Plissken must get him out.

 Director: John Carpenter

Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine

Screenplay: John Carpenter/Nick Castle

Bit part: Jamie Lee Curtis (voice over at the start of the film)

Fact: Expansively breasted Barbeau was Mrs John Carpenter at the time of filming.

You must have seen Escape From New York by now. Kurt Russell is one-eyed anti-hero, Snake Plissken, a vaguely futuristic Clint Eastwood figure sent by tough special forces' chief Bob Hauk (Van Cleef) to save President Donald Pleasance from the clutches of Manhattan’s main man Isaac Hayes (“The Dook of New York, A Number One.”)


Lee Van Cleef. Nails. Even on the side of a mug.

Plissken has tiny bombs implanted into his blood stream to prevent him from escaping in his government-issue glider. If he can bring the president back, they’ll be dissolved before they blow his arteries apart.

Plissken meets numerous characters as he tries to fulfil his Joseph Campbell-inspired mini-odyssey/mission brief. These include:  


*That’s what it’s called! The vanity of the man.

**Joke. Possibly the worst programme ever and certainly the worst to debase the good name of ‘Everton’.


After numerous violent escapades, Snake saves the President, recovers a not very futuristic c90 audio tape (which contains the secret of nuclear fusion to appease the Russians and Chinese at the ‘Hartford Summit’) and then does something very naughty to render the ending fairly nihilistic.

A film that’s much better than the sum of its parts. Some snappy, ironic dialogue, some good performances and some imaginative set pieces make Escape From New York one of Carpenter’s (and the eighties’) more fondly remembered films.


The film’s sequel ‘Escape From LA’ cost about 20 times as much as the original but often looks as if it cost half as much. Whole shots and mini sequences are (deliberately) appropriated for what the director hoped would be a post modern reworking of his original story. Worst of all, after directing a subversive socialist film (They Live) in the middle of the worst of the Reaganite economic excesses, Carpenter filled his film with dreadful anti-PC diatribes attacking (amongst others) vegetarianism and anti-smoking lobbies, which he saw as an attack on his basic  rights as a “red-blooded” American. Carpenter’s love of Howard Hawks’s macho posturing had finally addled his brain.

 Escape From LA is a terrible film.

 Anyway, Escape From New York :


Good Points

 ·         All those mentioned above (dialogue/performances/set pieces)

·         The “Everyone’s Coming To New York’ vaudeville song

·         Ernest Borgnine

·         The initial exchanges between Van Cleef and Russell:

HAUK  There was an accident about an hour ago. A small jet went down inside New York City. The President was on board.

SNAKE  President of what?

HAUK That's not funny, Plissken.  You go in, find the President and bring him out in 24 hours, and you're a free man.

SNAKE Twenty-four hours, huh?

HAUK I'm making you an offer.

SNAKE Bullshit.

HAUK Straight just like I said.

SNAKE I'll think about it.

HAUK No time. Give me an answer.

SNAKE Get a new president.

HAUK We're still at war, Plissken. We need him alive.

SNAKE I don't give a fuck about your war... or your president.

HAUK Is that your answer?

SNAKE I'm thinking about it.

HAUK Think hard.

SNAKE Why me?

HAUK You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad. You know how to get in quiet. You're all I've got.

SNAKE I guess I go in one way or the other. Doesn't mean shit to me. Give me the paper.

HAUK When you come out.

SNAKE Before.

HAUK I told you I wasn't a fool, Plissken.

SNAKE Call me Snake.

·         Fantastic soundtrack (great early electro and a brilliant reworking of Debussy’s ‘Engulfed Cathedral’)

·         Good action direction

·         Many sequences live on in the memory (the drive down Broadway; Pissken’s interrogation; the ‘Crazies’ coming up fro the sewers; the numerous visual references to hell on Earth)


Bad Points


 I once read that a third instalment was planned entitled ‘Escape from the Earth’, but this sounded silly to me.

Carpenter should do what Christopher Nolan did with the Batman franchise and give the ‘Escape’ series a grounding in reality.

Escape from New Brighton would be just dandy.