Running time: 99 min.
Release date: July 10, 1981
At this point in the career of John Carpenter, he had found massive success with the horror film Halloween. Escape From New York was a film that he had started to write in the 70s but didn't have the backing he needed for it until after the success of Halloween. Kurt Russell, the star of the film, was attempting to overcome his image as a squeaky-clean kid better known from Disney films. So when Carpenter finally had the opportunity to make Escape, Kurt Russell was the actor he wanted and the movie was the role Russell needed. The collaboration proves to be successful.
The movie opens informing us that in 1988 (the future), the crime rate has shot up to a whopping 400%. This prompts the government to establish the city of New York as a maximum security prison with a wall built around it and all routes leading out have been mined. In 1997 (or NOW, as indicated by the graphic), Air Force One is hijacked and crashed smack into the middle of New York. The President (Donald Pleasance) manages to escape via pod and lands in a burned out shell of a building, where he quickly goes missing. The President was en route to a peace summit with China and Russia, so it becomes vitally important to world peace that the President be found. When police go inside New York, led by commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), they are warned to back off by Romero (Frank Doubleday), who is the right-hand man for the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes). The Duke has taken the President with plans of using him to negotiate amnesty for all inmates.
Hauk brings in the freshly-captured Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former war hero turned criminal. Hauk offers him a pardon in exchange for going in and rescuing the President. Snake is apathetic to the cause but sees his chance to go free and reluctantly accepts the deal. He is supplied with weapons, a timer (a very useful tool in the pacing of a film) and a monitor linked to a bracelet the President wears that can track his location. Snake flies in via a military glider that he is familiar with from his war hero days and lands atop the World Trade Center. When he gets on the ground, the President is not going to be so easily found, as the Duke has removed the President's bracelet. Snake eventually meets up with a taxi driver named, what else, Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), who takes him to meet a man named Brain (Harry Dean Stanton). Brain ends up being a former partner-in-crime to Snake, coincidentally. Brain is accompanied by Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), whose cleavage probably needs a casting credit. They decide to assist Snake in the hopes of getting out of New York themselves.
We learn that Brain manufactures gasoline that the Duke uses to fuel his Cadillac, which contains chandeliers for headlights; Brain was also working on a diagram for Duke; a diagram that contained the locations of all mines on the Queensboro Bridge. Eventually, Snake encounters the Duke, finds the President, gets captured and battles professional wrestler Ox Baker in a makeshift ring set up in the middle of Grand Central Station. The timer on Snake's wrist keeps ticking down throughout the movie as a reminder that things needs to move quickly, and things indeed do move quickly from scene to scene.
Along the way, we get a vision of an urban wasteland. Carpenter has taken a small budget and gotten the most out of in terms of production design and sets. East St. Louis has doubled for New York City in this case, but it's a very convincing payoff. This is a setting that contains riff-raff that come up from the sewers to look for food, and mobs of crazies that assault vehicles passing through. There always appear to be fires at every turn. Carpenter has created a gritty, grimy atmosphere accompanied by a strange, weird tone thanks to the various characters found in the streets. Kurt Russell sheds his prior Disney image and becomes Snake. The character is an anti-hero, but Russell's charisma comes through. All the other characters are not drawn as well; the Duke is just a bad guy as played by Isaac Hayes; the Brain and Maggie have muddled motivations and seem to just be there to drive Snake from point A to point B. Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie was probably the more interesting supporting character, but that had more to do with Borgnine's ability to be cheerful in the midst of all the grit.
The thing that stands out above all else is Carpenter's skill in creating the atmosphere and moving the plot along at a brisk pace, making sure that the audience knows where the story is going and why. He provides a combination of action and enough weirdness to make the story entertaining and never dull. The sets and production surrounding the story establish the world that Snake has been dropped into, contrasting it with the controlled police state on the other side of the wall. Escape From New York is a memorable film because of its look and feel, something that Carpenter is adept at providing consistently in his work.