Original Title:

Escape From New York

Alternative Title(s):


Year of Release:




Country of Origin:



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

Reviewed Version: Rating:



By Michael Petch
Jan 07

The president is not exactly having his best day.

Hauk loves Snake really.

Snake persuades Brain to hel.

Borgnine tells another stinker.

The Duke looking confused.

I was recently reading a book that discussed the predicted increase in crime rate on the US (Freakanomics). Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, crime was predicted to increase immensely. All the big strategists calculated it as inevitable. Switch on News 24 now and you will be forgiven for thinking it happened, but the fact is the US actually became a safer place to live in. Everybody has a different theory on what happened, but that’s irrelevant to this review. The fact is that everybody was bracing themselves for an explosion in crime. Escape From New York claims that 1988 would see a 400% increase in the crime rate. As I watch the film now this statistic seems quite laughable, but back in 1981 I’m sure it had a much greater impact, kick-starting the "sci-fi jail break" subgenre that includes Fortress, No Escape and Wedlock among many others. John Carpenter set the watermark for many jail films to come, and that mark is pretty high.

Considering the limited budget (something like $6million) Carpenter managed to make a film that ticks a lot of boxes. He even manages to score a decent synth soundtrack, which is what leads us into the movie.

The film is set in 1997. After the explosion of crime in '88 a big chunk of New York City was cordoned off and made into one big jail. The police simply patrol the boundary, which is surrounded by water or mine fields (possibly both). What do you get when you let all the criminals in a country loose in an abandoned New York? Well, the offer to all new inmates of voluntary euthanasia (and cremation!) turns out to probably not be as bad an offer as it sounds. Different factions roam different areas of the city, with the aptly-named Crazies living in the sewers and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) as the top dog over ground, patrolling the city in his impressively modified Cadillac.

Everything starts off nice and peaceful. A couple of escapees are blown up during a laughable escape and a new inmate is on his way to the jail. Unfortunately for Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), his day isn’t going to be as routine as normal. Some crazy terrorists from the National Liberation Front of America ("I thought we were the American Peoples Front Reg?") somehow manage to hijack Air Force One carrying the President (Donald Pleasence) on his way to some vitally important meeting about World War III, with a cassette tape holding crucial information of some kind. The terrorists choose to crash Air Force One into New York as some kind of symbol for liberation or something like that. Luckily for the presiden there's a one-man escape egg thing that can survive anything, although I bet he gets a little shook up. Hauk sends in his men to save the President but they are not quick enough as the Duke get there first. The armed forces arrive by helicopter but they are warned off by one of the Duke’s gang who threatens to kill the president if they do not leave. Without an immediate option they leave not wanting the President to die. Hauk finds himself with only one option, to send in a one-man undercover agent to rescue him from the inside. Who to choose, though? Ah of course, the recently arrived convict who was a well-known war hero before getting caught robbing a bank. Enter Snake Plissken (Kurt Russel), an eye patch-wearing, "don’t give a damn" stereotypical hero. Kurt does just about enough to give Snake some character and an air of cool, certainly looking like the man for the job.

Snake acts as if he doesn’t care and that a full pardon for his crimes is "no biggie", yet we all know he’s a patriot at heart and he's soon coerced to head into the wasteland and save the President. There's a deadline for the conference that the President needs to get to. If he isn’t saved before the conference (along with the all important cassette), then he may as well be dead. I suppose this means the other countries will declare war if the President doesn’t turn up. Luckily for Hauk, the base’s resident scientist has a nifty little toy that they insert into Snake's neck. If he isn’t back within the time limit (just over a day I think it was) then it explodes. Only the scientist has the special x-rays to neutralize the explosive upon Snake’s return. Nice.

Rather than take the easy route into the city, Snake enters via a glider. Here we have a funny mixture of both good and bad special effects as Snake flies in under the cover of dark, and lands on top of the Twin towers (well, one of them). Snake wanders round the city and ends up at a dilapidated cinema where the Presidents homing beacon is coming from. Some convicts are putting on a poorly-choreographed show, dressed as women. One of the audience notices Snake in the background and goes up to say hi. The guy turns out to be a cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) who is the first of many to recognize Snake and the first to say “I thought you were dead”. Snake soon heads down to where the signal is, through a den of rapists, druggies and crazy old tramps who try to attack him. Eventually he gets to the signal but finds that the President's transmitter has be placed on one of the tramps. He heads back out and starts skulking round the city.

After being chased by a group of the Crazies, he's saved by the cabbie who pulls up in his taxi. The cabbie takes Snake to see Brain (
Harry Dean Stanton) who seems to have a working relationship with the Duke. He helps the Duke out with information and other "Brain" based things, and is given a nice apartment and busty girlfriend for his troubles. Snake and Brain argue about some history they have and eventually he agrees to help get the President back. While the Duke is out patrolling his lands in his Chandelier-fronted car, Brain takes Snake and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) in the taxi to where the President is hidden. He distracts the guards while Snake sneaks in and rescues him. Unfortunately, the Duke is back before they expected and Snake is soon cornered and knocked out.

The Duke obviously likes to keep his gang entertained so sets up a fight between Snake and some huge wrestler. Luckily for u,s the fight starts off with baseball-bat type sticks and moves on to bats with nails in the end. While Snake is slugging it out, Brain and Maggie trick the numskulls who are guarding the President and manage to rescue him. Brain knows about the glider so heads off that way. Snake manages to defeat the wrestler guy after being on the ropes for most of the duration. The Duke is shocked but the crowd loves it and starts chanting Snake’s name. Before the Duke can order Snake dead, the news of the President’s escape reaches him, so off he goes with the whole gang in hot pursuit of Brain. In fact they all leave so quickly that Snake manages to sneak out.

Back now to the Twin Tower,s where Snake meets up with Brain, Maggie and the President. Unfortunately some of the Crazies have found the glider and Snake is just in time to watch as the Crazies dump it off the side of the building. Luckily Brain has a back-up plan. Somehow he happens to have a map to a mined bridge out of the city, showing where the mines are placed, so they can escape to the city wall. It was explained earlier where he got the map from but the whole idea is pretty mental. The Duke ambushes them at the Twin Towers exit, but some quick thinking from Snake gives them a quick escape. Luckily, they bump into the cabbie at just the right time (again) who takes them to the bridge. The Duke also knows about the bridge, so chases after them. He seems pretty pissed off at this point.

I was expecting some wide bridge but it’s a simple two-lane affair with masses of debris and abandoned vehicles. Speeding down the long bridge they try to read the mine map at the same time. How Snake thinks he can get down the road without hitting a mine I don’t know, but he's obviously insane. On the other hand he does have the Duke chasing after him and the time is running out for the time bomb in his neck. What would you rather do? Eventually something has got to give and it’s the minefield. One explosion and the taxi cab is ripped into two pieces. Poor old cabbie dies but the others are miraculously unhurt. On foot now they run to the wall. Brain is trying to read the map while running but nobody else listens to him. Lucky really as Brain is the next to bite the dust as he runs over another mine. Maggie is understandably upset and stays with Brain's body to try and hold up the Duke, who is approaching fast. Snake and the President reach the 20 foot wall. Some guards on the other side throw a rope over adn up goes the President. Duke rams Maggie and finally reaches Snake. A fight ensues of which the winner is surprisingly the President who gets some revenge from his vantage point on the wall.

Needless to say, Snake is just in time to get his lifesaving x-rays and the President is just in time to give a speech via TV to the conference. Prior to the speech, Snake asks the President what he thinks about all the people who risked, and ultimately lost their lives to save him. The President obviously doesn’t really care, so Snake gets some final revenge. He switched the important cassette tape with the cabbies music tape, presumably dooming the US to war.

Final Thoughts:

Carpenter has done well in making what was patently a ridiculous plot seem more believable than you would think, yet he has kept enough strange, unusual and downright mad bits to keep it interesting and fun. The addition of a few famous faces give it some much needed character and a range of exciting scenes make it an all round enjoyable film.

Alternative Versions:

A laserdisc version and a particular VHS release supposedly shows some cut scenes from the robbery that got Snake sent to the prison.

Cast and Crew Facts:





The scenes set in night time New York were filmed in St. Louis after a huge fire.

The woman Snake talks to in the café before she's dragged underground by the Crazies was Kurt Russell’s wife at the time.

James Cameron worked on the visual effects.

According to IMDB - John Carpenter had a friend who knew a guy in Cleveland named Snake Plissken that everyone thought was dead. This is where Carpenter got the name from and explains why everyone in the movie heard Snake was dead.


Bob Hauk: "You going to kill me, Snake?"
Snake: "Not now, I'm too tired. Maybe later."

Connections With Other PA's:

Although not set in a PA world there are many connections. People and places in the jail are very similar to what you would find in the majority of PA films.

Donald Pleasence (the President) stars alongside Fred Williamson in Italian PA Il Giustiziere Della Terra Perduta (Warriors of The Lost World).

Critic's reactions:

Reasonable. Made a good profit at the cinema, something like $50million, add to that videos and DVD’s and Carpenter has done quite well.

Regular Movie Goers Scores:

Enjoyable enough and has enough character to keep people interested. I was surprised to find my girlfriend quite enjoyed it.

For the PA Collector:

Not necessary for the collection, but looking at the life of all the different villains, from the Crazies who live in the sewer to the guys who put on a drag show  at the old cinema, is quite interesting and innovative for a PA setting. Nice to see lots of different factions where as in most PA’s there are simply the good and the bad. Snake would make a reasonable PA character. Recommended, but not vital.

Purchase Point:

Easily available in any good DVD shop.

Links / External Reviews:


First and foremost Escape From New York is a fast-paced action film that is never dull to watch. However, the film also contains a dark, satirical edge that never falters, even right up to the film's conclusion.


A selection of media on John Carpenters site.

Countries Released:

Mostly worldwide.

DVD Release Info/Merchandise:

Basic DVD and Special edition available. Not much else. Hard to find a copy of the poster. There was also a board game which you might be able to find on US eBay.

Actual Budget/Guessed Budget:

Studio says $7million. Carpenter says $5.5m I say Carpenter made it look more like $10m but a few dodgy special effects let it down.

Our Score:


7 out of 10



Box Cover(s):

US Region 1 DVD Regular Edition

US Region 1 DVD Special Edition

Czech Region 2 DVD

Advertisement Poster(s): 

UK Quad Cinema Poster

US Cinema Poster

Italian DVD Poster. The Italians always know best! 

There are many more posters out there, just have a  Google picture search.

Comments: Add your comments about the film or this review here.