Escape from New York (1980)

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: Adrienne Barbeau was Mrs John Carpenter at the time of filming.

In short: 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.


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.”)

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:  

  • Crumpled-faced actor Ernest Borgnine is ‘Cabbie’, a Brooklyn taxi driver (funnily enough), who acts as a guide/mentor in the underworld;
  • ‘Brain’ (Harry Dean Stanton), the, er, ‘brains’ of the operation (Carpenter must have spent hours thinking of these names);
  • Maggie  (Barbeau) “Brain’s squeeze” (his words, not mine), whose job it is to be aggressive and show her breasts;
  •  Season Hubley (???), who is described as ‘Woman in Chock Full O’ Nuts’ (ooh-er) in the credits. Hubley (no, me neither), also receives a ‘special appearance by’ credit in the opening titles, despite her two minute role consisting of dropping her kecks for one of Snake’s cigarettes (in order to further exemplify the director’s  reputation for writing believable, rounded roles for women). Watch ‘John Carpenter’s* Vampires’ if you want to see the nadir of his depiction of women in his films.
  • Donald Pleasance in a blonde girly wig. You can try to take Don’s dignity away, but he usually manages to do it himself, anyway. He’ll always be ‘Colin’ to me: “I can see things, close up, to work, but you’re just Lionel Blair.”
  • Isaac Hayes!
  • Various other skanky actors including a very plausible, method acting meths drinker (who sings a very plausible, method acting, meths-drinking) version of “Hail to the Chief”) and a scary, punk go-between (carrying the President's lopped-off finger in a hankie) straight from a futuristic The Singing Ringing Tree.

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

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.

 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

  • Some would say that the computer graphics haven't aged well (but I like to think they have a parallel universe quality about them)
  • “1997: NOW.”  Not really.
  • Harry Enfield style obvious catchphrase telegraphing: “I heard you were dead,”/”Call me Snake”/ “That’s MY spatula, Uncle Bernard!”

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.

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.